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Afghanistan’s ‘Royal’ Outcasts

nomadic Kuchi by Karlos Zurutuza

By Karlos Zurutuza

The nomadic Kuchi are being driven from their lands, says Karlos Zurutuza. They’re second-class citizens in their own country.

‘The Hazaras burned down our houses and drove us off our land. Now we have nowhere to go,’ says Khan Shabuz. His words seem to resonate with those who have huddled around him, heads bowed as they stand surrounded by barbed wire. ‘They’ve also stolen all our cattle. We are nomads, how are we supposed to carry on now?’

According to official figures, there could be as many as three million Kuchi nomads living in Afghanistan, making them about ten percent of the country’s total population. Yet despite sharing a common language with the Pashtuns (the country’s largest ethnic group) these migrants are often treated like lepers in a land they’ve been criss-crossing with their flocks for centuries.

The reality is that while for generations they played a key role in trade between Central Asia and the Middle East, today they’re easy prey for warlords and regular armed Afghans who have gradually taken over land that’s in many cases supposedly guaranteed them by the Constitution.

The 700 Kuchis who have been relocated amid the ruins of Darul Aman, the palace of Afghan King Amanullah that was built on the outskirts of Kabul in the 1920's (and which Russians and mujaideen heavily damaged during the course of the 1970s, 80s and 90s), are a handful of the many Kuchi that have been displaced.

In a courtyard opposite the war-scarred remains of the neoclassical facade of the palace, four men toil away building latrines for the displaced. At this spot yesterday were three decorative fountains. Tomorrow, 250 displaced families from a nearby village will have a place to urinate, behind a stall made of black canvass.

‘We used to live in Kala-e Gazi, just behind that mountain,’ says Rahman, pointing west. ‘For more than 300 years, that was where we’d rest after spending months on the move with our livestock.’

Government sources say that the nomads have been relocated to Darul Aman until an ongoing investigation clarifies what really happened in Kala-e Gazi. But there’s a growing sense of frustration among the nomads over whether anything will ever come of this.

‘We know who they are. But instead of arresting them, the government just dumps us in this horrible wasteland,’ says Zanaullah.

Wasteland might not be a bad way to describe the area. It’s not only the usual lack of water and electricity or the poor sanitation. There’s also the familiar Afghan problem of unexploded ordinance, with the letters UXO painted on the arches of the palace acting as a chilling reminder of their presence nearby. Unexploded Russian shells might have been removed long ago, but the threat of landmines persists.

Children run barefoot around Darul Aman, unable to attend school until UNICEF finally gets a chance to erect a dedicated school tent in the courtyard. Even when they do, though, it’s unclear how many will actually attend.

‘We live in that room up there,’ says Ahmadin, a green-eyed boy with orange henna hair. He points toward a red quilt hanging from the second floor of a building that once housed an Afghan king. Up in these ‘royal’ chambers, Ahmadin’s four brothers are jumping over holes the size of a car wheel. If they misjudge their jumps, they’ll fall ten meters to the floor below.

‘We are the pariahs of Afghanistan. In many places, they’ll even slam hospital doors shut in our faces,’ says the boys’ father, Ismatullah. ‘Even the cemetery gates!’

The Kuchi actually have a quota of 10 seats in the Afghan Parliament, with 52 candidates (42 men and 10 women) having sought these seats in last month’s parliamentary elections. However, few ‘true’ nomads ever take part in politics.

This low participation rate has unfortunate knock-on effects for the Kuchi, including a tendency for politicians to exploit them for their own political gain. There were many irregularities during last month’s elections, but a recurring tale is of ballot boxes stuffed full in Kuchi dominated areas, despite the fact that hardly any of them ever actually turn up to vote.

The physical distance from the rest of the population has been gradually reinforced as the nomads have found the environment more threatening. ‘Thirty years ago each Kuchi family had a flock of at least 200 sheep—no one went hungry,’ says Abdulsattar over a lunch of cheese, bread and green tea. ‘When we fought against the Russians, we’d move around freely. But today, Afghanistan is littered with mines and armed thugs.’

There’s a lingering myth among Afghans that Kuchi are wealthy owners of enormous herds of cattle, Abdulsattar says. But while this may be true for a handful of Kuchis who settled down in urban areas, most are barely able to survive on the money they make from selling meat and milk.

‘Have you seen the sheep grazing among the garbage strewn along the streets in Kabul? People could never eat that meat,’ he says underscoring how important it is for the Kuchi to maintain their nomadic lifestyle. ‘We’ve spent centuries moving with the seasons in the search of the best pastures…I don’t want to end my days here.’

With nothing else to do, the men gather at dusk around the carpenter who sits at the top of the stairs to the almost ready latrines and talk mostly about the weather and how cold the nights are getting in Kabul.

‘At this time of the year I should be preparing to move down toward Surubi,’ says one of the men standing in the shadow of the remains of the Versailles fountains once erected to celebrate the glory of a king.

Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance correspondent from the Basque Country.