Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Land Dispute Sparks Ethnic Tension

Pashtun refugees returning to claim homes and lands in Takhar face opposition from local Uzbeks.
By Gulrahim Niyazman
Life is becoming increasingly perilous for 82 families who have spent the past six weeks languishing in an old prison in Takhar province. Denied food and clean drinking water, and living in the open without adequate shelter, they are becoming desperate.



“The soldiers bring things from the local bazaar, and sell them to us for four times the normal price,” said Shahwo, a 45-year-old woman who has been virtually imprisoned for more than one month. “If you ask them for change, they just say ‘shut up or I’ll smash you in the mouth’.”



In late August, Shahwo and more than 500 former residents of Takhar province returned following years of exile in Pakistan.



Most are Pashtuns, the majority ethnic group in Afghanistan, who had fled the fighting that plagued their province during the Soviet invasion. Now, after more than two decades, they have come back to reclaim their houses and lands.



But local residents, drawn mainly from the Uzbek minority, have long since moved into the abandoned properties.



To prevent an outbreak of hostilities, say the authorities, they brought the Pashtuns to an old prison in the Khajabahauddin district of Takhar. Originally built by jihadi commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in the mid-1990s to jail Taleban fighters, it has turned into an uncomfortable refuge for the returnees.



“My children are ill, they have fever, diarrhea, vomiting,” complained Shahwo. “I cannot take them anywhere for treatment. Yesterday one of my neighbour’s children died, and we could not even have a normal funeral service. Armed men accompanied us to the cemetery.”



The troubles started several weeks ago, when the 82 Pashtun families, numbering 575 persons, arrived in Lalah Gozar, a village in Khajabahuddin district. They possessed documents that they claim proved their right to lands and houses that they had occupied before they were driven out by war. Since 1985, the families had been living across the Pakistan border, in Balochistan. Now they wanted to come home.



But the Uzbek residents of Lalah Gozar were not eager to see the truck caravans containing the worldly possessions of the Pashtun families. They blocked roads and staged protests to keep the returnees from unloading their belongings.



“Why should I give my 102 jeribs to these people?” said Qari Hamidullah, an Uzbek resident of Lalah Gozar.



The lands in question have a long and troubled history. According to Hajji Jamshed, an Uzbek elder in Lalah Gozar, the territory was originally held by Uzbeks.



“We have 80-year-old documents saying that this area was under the control of our fathers, who worked the land,” he told IWPR. “Fifty-two years ago, the government came and took these lands from us and gave them to the Pashtuns. Then they came and started to work on these lands. But we will not let these murderers, these al-Qaeda terrorists back, not at any price.”



Many Afghans blame the Pashtun majority for the excesses of the Taleban regime. Taleban were drawn largely from the Pashtuns, and they imposed a strict interpretation of Islam on an often unwilling population.



“We are not related to any …. group,” said Abdul Jabar, one of the returnees. “We were just victims of fighting. But just by being part of an ethnic group we are [under suspicion].”



Given the level of local antagonism, it seems the government had little choice but to put the Pashtuns in the old prison, said Hajji Akram Anwari, governor of Khajabahuddin district.



“The Pashtun returnees have legal documents,” he told IWPR. “But if they went right to their homes they would have been attacked by the Uzbek militias.



“These returnees are not prisoners. But where they are now is the safest place for them.”



His fears seem to be well-founded.



“We were waiting in ambush for those returnees,” said Hajji Jamshed. “If the governor had not stopped them and taken them to the prison, we would have attacked them and killed them.”



The returning Pashtuns say that the land, given to them by the government over 50 years ago, was just a swamp before their fathers and grandfathers cleared it and made it usable. According to the law in force at the time, non-arable land distributed by the government became the property of those working it after 30 years.



“We were given the lands by the government in 1957,” said Abdul Jabar, one of the returnees. “We should have received title deeds in 1987, but we had to leave in 1985, because of the fighting. Was this our fault?”



Uzbeks living on the land abandoned by the Pashtuns are confused as to who actually owns it.



“I have been living in this district for 15 years,” said Khal Mohammad. “I came here during the civil war, built a house in Mahajer Kishlaq and started to live here. I do not know whether somebody has documents for this land. I do not.”



Another Uzbek resident, who did not want to be named, told IWPR that, for him, the issue was clear. “These lands belong to those families who have returned from Pakistan,” he said.



His understanding is that the lands were given away during the chaotic civil war years of the mid-1990s.



“The land was distributed to other people by Mohammad Kabir Marzban, who was governor of Takhar at that time,” he said. “But in my opinion the returnees have the right to the land and it should be returned to them.”



Faiz Mohammad Tawheddi, spokesperson for the provincial governor, said that had the Pashtun returnees informed the government in advance of their decision to come back, better accommodation might have been found.



But the returnees are not asking for government shelter; they want their houses and lands.



“I lived here, and left my home because of the Soviets,” said Shahwo. “I do not see the need to ask permission from the government to come back. These people stole my home, and the government should kick them out.”



The government has been slow to act. The issue is a delicate one, because of long-simmering ethnic tensions in the country. The president has sent a delegation to investigate, but the issues are too complicated to be easily resolved.



“After talking to both sides, we asked that we be given one month to find a solution,” said Wahidullah Sabawoon, who headed the presidential delegation. “We had two suggestions for the president, either to send the whole issue to the courts, or to return the lands to the refugees by decree. He is studying the question.”



Abdul Jabar Sholgarai, a parliamentarian from Ghazni province, who was also a member of the delegation, said, “We were unable to solve the problem. There are political hands behind this. They are provoking the Uzbeks against the Pashtuns in order to gain control of the region.”



He would not specify exactly who could be responsible.



The delegation is making a second attempt to resolve the issue, but tempers are running high.



Doctor Zalmai, head of the complaints commission of the Mashrano Jirga, parliament’s upper house, told IWPR that the fires of protest were being fanned by some politicians.



“Kabir Marzban and Engineer Raz Mohammad are behind this issue and are supporting a specific ethnic faction. Unless they are both arrested, there will never be a solution to Khajabahuddin,” said Doctor Zalmai, who like many Afghans only uses one name.



But Kabir Marzban, formerly governor of Takhar and now a senator, denied that he was involved.



“The return of these people has nothing to do with me,” he told IWPR. “It’s the responsibility of the government to give them back their homes.”



Engineer Raz Mohammad, a representative for Takhar in parliament’s lower house, could not be reached for comment.



Some members of the government are trying to depoliticise the issue, hoping that a more pragmatic approach will yield results.



Sher Mohammad Etibari, Afghanistan’s minister for refugees and repatriation, was summoned to parliament to give information about the crisis.



“These people (the Pashtuns) were residents of that area,” he testified. “Even the Uzbek elders confirm this. They say that the treatment of these returnees is cruel. (Some people) are taking advantage of the government’s weakness.”



Etibari said the government should judge the situation on its legal merits, “If the government uses its authority in the area and acts according to the documents … the issue will be solved in a day. But if the issue becomes politicised, it will take months.”



For now the Pashtun families are living in very difficult conditions.



“We have 29 families living in one of the prison yards, with just three rooms,” said Abdul Zahir, 30, who was sitting in the shade of one of the prison walls. “Another 35 families are living in another yard, with just four rooms. The remaining 18 families are living in the main prison block, where the rooms are two metres long and one metre wide. Each family has one room.”



The prison is guarded by groups of police, who are meant to keep the families safe. But those inside feel more like inmates than guests. They have little food, the water is foul, and many subsist on wild greens that they cut and boil.



“Some of our people have become ill and have died, because we cannot get them medicine,” said Abdul Hakim, head of a family of ten. “Our children cannot go outside. Local warlords are beating people who try to help us, and they have told the local bakeries not to sell us bread. Even the Russians were not this cruel. And these people call themselves Muslims and jihadis?”



Sayed Iqbal, head of the provincial refugee department, told IWPR that his office could do little for the returnees.



“The refugee department in Takhar is just symbolic,” he said. “I am the head of the office and I receive 3,000 afghani per month (approximately 60 US dollars). If I have official guests I have to pay for their tea and cookies out of my own pocket. So how am I supposed to help these returnees?”



Engineer Manan, a representative of the returnees, went to Kabul to talk to the government. But he, too, was unable to make any progress. “Unfortunately the government is doing nothing,” he told IWPR.



With the beginning of the election campaign, the government of Hamed Karzai, who is himself Pashtun, has not wanted to side too openly with the Pashtuns in the north, said Manan.



“These lands are ours, and everybody knows that these lands are ours,” he said. “We have valid documents. But the government is silent. It is trying to conduct an election campaign, to get the votes of the local people, and show that the government is not on the side of the Pashtuns. Instead, it is on the side of some local warlords.”



With the approach of winter, he said conditions for the returnees could deteriorate, “But even if we die under the rain and snow, or perish from hunger, we will not leave our lands.”



Gulrahim Niyazman is a freelance contributor to IWPR. Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter based in Mazar-e-Sharif.