Adam Khan Nasiri was a member of a delegation of nomads at Afghanistan's recent loya jirga, the grand council that produced the country's new constitution. President Hamid Karzai signed the new constitution on January 26, but Nasiri professes little interest in celebrating the event. He says the constitution does little to improve conditions for Afghan nomads.
A 45-year-old shepherd from the southern Zabul Province, Nasiri is pessimistic about the future for Afghanistan's nomads, known as Kuchis in the Dari language. "Nobody pays attention to our problems. We have lost almost everything, but have gotten very little or no assistance," said Nasiri, a father of six children. "I have lost my whole flock of 400 sheep over the past three years, my children have no education and there are no doctors for us."
Nasiri's experience is one that is shared by many of the estimated 1 million nomads in Afghanistan. Once a stable community of herders and merchants, most Kuchis have seen their way of life shattered by almost 25 years of civil strife. A large number of nomads remain refugees in Pakistan, or are internally displaced within Afghanistan. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, nomads remain among the most vulnerable segments of society. [For background click here]. Some experts say a comprehensive land rehabilitation program is needed before nomads can resume their traditional way of life. At the same time, those wanting to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle are in need of vocational training.
But such assistance appears to be a low priority on the Karzai government's agenda. Agriculture minister Sayed Hussain Anwari, in a December 27 speech, urged Afghans to adopt a program of self-reliance in developing sustainable farming. He also acknowledged the nomads' hardship. "One respected delegate complained yesterday that Afghan nomads are ignored," he said. "We have made efforts to ensure they are not. We have put forward several proposals regarding the future strategy of the Agriculture Ministry. We hope to find some resources for you as soon as possible."
What little assistance that is available to nomads is hard to deliver, those involved in the aid effort say. "You don't set up a health clinic for Kuchis, you have some kind of mobile solution," said Peter Robertson, a senior advisor to the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. "The same is true for education. The challenge is finding the right methods to support nomadic people."
The ministry, in collaboration with other aid groups, has talked about steering Kuchis toward jobs in labor-intensive projects such as road-building and the digging of irrigation channels. It is also supporting a study on the water supply in desolate areas in southern Kandahar Province a region that has traditionally served as winter base for a large number of nomads.
Resources alone will not bring nomads stability, observers are quick to point out. According to a leading expert from the US-based organization Refugees International, long-standing inter-ethnic tension presents a major obstacle for Kuchis. Most Afghan nomads are ethnic Pashtuns, and they have experienced hostility at the hands of other ethnic groups, especially in northern Afghanistan.
"In the northwest, [ethnic] Uzbeks and Tajiks resent the presence of Kuchis, and have forced them to flee their lands," Larry Thompson, Refugee International's director of advocacy, wrote in December. [For background click here].
Thompson also reported encountering ethnic Hazaras, who voiced the belief that Kuchis collaborated with the defeated Taliban militia, which was, and remains, dominated by Pashtun elements. Kuchi political activists have denied a close association with the Taliban.
"Many ended up in dismal...camps near Herat or Kandahar, or in dangerous and isolated refugee camps in Pakistan," Thompson wrote. "Kuchis who have livestock are often unable to drive their flocks to their traditional summer grazing pastures in the central highlands....In some areas, landmines hinder access to grazing land."
Ubaidullah Baloch, a tribal leader in the southern province of Helmand, confirmed Thompson's assessment. "We have no drinking water and the warlords prevent our herds from grazing on the fertile riverbanks," Baloch said, adding that the loss of livestock has left many Kuchis unable to fulfill another traditional role, trading with peasants in the Hindu Kush mountain range.
Squabbles over access to water sources and grazing land have fueled inter-ethnic tension. In some cases, disputes have turned violent, according to Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai, an influential Kuchi leader. "We don't want to fight anybody. All Afghans are our brothers and we want to live in harmony with them," he said.
Thompson's report notes that reconciliation among the Kuchis and the Hazaras would help open the resumption of traditional summer migration to the central highlands. Ahmadzai advocated the establishment of an office for nomadic affairs within Karzai's administration. The office, according to Ahmadzai's vision, would help mediate land disputes and work to build trust among Kuchis and northern ethnic groups.
Abubaker Saddique reports on South Central Asia.