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Afghan settlers, nomads fight over grazing land

(AFP) / 6 August 2008

BEHSUD, Afghanistan - The attack was two days ago but fire still smoulders in a house and two shops in a small village in remote central Afghanistan.

‘The nomads came down from the mountains, they broke doors and looted the shops,’ says a toothless old man who owns one of the destroyed shops, a grocery store. ‘What can I do now? I lost everything.’

This village of a half-dozen traditional mudbrick homes in Behsud, 150 kilometres (90 miles) east of Kabul, is the latest target in a conflict which has for the past five years pitted Kuchi nomads against Hazara settlers.

It is an increasingly violent standoff over grazing land that has ethnic undertones, as the Kuchi from Afghanistan’s majority Pashtun tribe have a bloody history with the Hazara.

‘Kuchis attacked our house yesterday, they took away our animals,’ says another Hazara, 23-year-old Mohammad Yacine. ‘We escaped but they burned my house.’

He has come to the village to find help. ‘They fired at us and we couldn’t respond because we have no weapons. If we had, we wouldn’t have left our area,’ he says, standing in a group of men holding old rifles or Kalashnikovs.

‘They want us to leave this place so they can claim our lands.’

The Hazaras, a Shia minority of Mongol origin, have lived and farmed in these valleys overlooked by bare hills for centuries.

About 130 years ago, the Kuchi started arriving every summer to graze their camels, sheep and goats -- a right they say was given to them by royal order.

‘The area does not have the capacity for more than the people who already live here,’ says Abdul Raza Razahi, a Hazara parliamentarian for Wardak province which includes Behsud.

‘When Kuchis and their hundreds of thousands of sheep come down to this area, logically fights and looting happens.’

Seven people have been killed this year and 1,500 homes abandoned, he says.

Razahi and others allege a new dimension has emerged, contributing to the violence -- the involvement of Taleban, mainly Pashtu extremists behind an insurgency in Afghanistan and said to have support from elements in Pakistan.

The leader of the nomads in these parts was a commander of Taleban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar during the hardliner’s 1996-2001 rule of Afghanistan, the MP says.

‘The Kuchis are not the same as before -- a lot of them come from Pakistan,’ he says.

Hussein Dad, 42, says the men who destroyed his property were carrying the white flag of the Taleban. ‘They came with machine guns, Kuchi with Taleban mixed together,’ he charges.

Another Hazara villager, Mohammad Nabi Akbari, 73, interjects: ‘If it was only the Kuchis, it would be simpler. But they are also Taleban and Al Qaeda.’

‘When they attacked, they could be heard and I am not a simple guy who does not know they are not speaking Dari and Pashtu,’ he says, referring to Afghanistan’s two main languages.

‘When I heard what was happening, I could not sleep’--

 To face the threat, the Hazara are organising themselves militarily, setting up lookout posts in the hills. At one, five armed men carrying binoculars and walkie-talkies survey their surroundings.

Further away, a blue, white and red flag flies above a school which has become a base for Afghan soldiers and their French instructors.

‘We were sent to this area after the deterioration of security. The Afghan army has activated observation posts for 20 kilometres in this valley and we are patrolling with them,’ says Lieutenant Colonel Ivan Martin.

‘There are no more attacks in the valley but the houses are still burning in the mountains. It takes us three hours to get there and then it is too late,’ he says.

A delegation that has come from Kabul to try to resolve the conflict arrives at a Kuchi camp under military escort. The road passes through burnt homes, suggesting ‘scorched earth’ methods.

‘We gathered like we do every year and the Hazaras attacked us,’  says Kuchi tribal chief Qalai Qalan.

‘But anyway this land belongs to us. It was given to us more than 130 years ago by the king -- we have documents to prove it,’ he says.

Dozens of elders and chiefs are gathered around him -- all of them with long beards, dark eyes and a proud stance. Some of them brandish whips to keep their herds in line.

A few say in hushed words that they are afraid of being attacked when they have to leave again. Other accuse the Hazara of setting alight their homes themselves.

‘The Kuchi are very poor people, they do not have education or basic facilities. Every year they take their animals to areas that were given to them more than a century ago.

‘Why should they stop them?’ asks Haji Mohammad Hazrat Janan, a Kuchi official and head of the Wardak provincial council.

Janan claims Afghanistan’s eastern neighbour Iran -- a Shia nation -- is fuelling the violence, helping the Hazaras because they are of the same branch of Islam. The Kuchi are mostly Sunnis, as are the Taleban.

‘Iran is supplying weapons to the Hazara... Kuchi are present in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan -- why do they only have problems here?’ he asks.

The official admits though that houses have been burnt and blames the ‘ignorance of some Kuchi.’

Asked about the Kuchi statement that they have been given grazing rights by a previous king, retired army general and former Hazara warlord Zaman Hussein Faizi claims the 2003 constitution nullified all decrees before it.

‘In the 21st century, the way of life of the Kuchi is ridiculous and cruel for them. It is time for them to be settled, to have access to civilisation and education. But not on our land,’ he says.

On the road back to Kabul, four armed young Hazaras are driving the other way, towards Behsud.

‘When I heard what is happening there, I could not sleep any more,’ one of them says. ‘It is a feeling that comes from the deepest part of me: I must fight to defend my land.’


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