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

Courts Struggle to Resolve Housing Disputes

People whose homes were seized during the years of war and strife are finding it hard to retrieve them.
By Rahim Gul

Hundreds of Kabul residents who lost homes in the chaos of the past six years are struggling to get them back because the courts seemingly can’t cope with the volume of cases and may be reluctant to confront the policemen and soldiers occupying the properties.


Some residents lost homes to Taleban officials, but in the past year members of the defence and interior ministry forces have grabbed these homes and seized others at gunpoint.


So many complaints flooded into the property claims court in the two months after the Taleban fell that a special housing claims commission was set up to screen them. The process is lengthy and prone to delays as the commission only meets twice a week and the cases are complicated, with officials saying that it’s difficult to get both parties into the court at the same time.


As a result, only 107 of the 750 complaints filed have been resolved in more than a year.


While the plaintiffs accept that the process is being held up by bureaucratic problems, they suspect that another significant obstacle is that judges, like themselves, are afraid to confront the powerful men who have seized their properties.


Since the fall of the Taleban, the former Northern Alliance soldiers who helped the US defeat the student militia have been hired for the majority of the interior and defense ministry positions. Extremely powerful, these officials together with their men don’t answer to anyone and can act with impunity.


Imamuddin’s house was taken over by the Taleban when he left Afghanistan, but he still hasn’t been able to get it back because it was subsequently seized by a soldier. “We can’t live there, nor can we rent it out,” he said.


Fazal Jan rented out his house when he left for Pakistan during the Taleban era. He had no problems until the interim administration took over, when a soldier came to the house and forced out the tenants. The soldier beat and threatened to kill them, Fazal Jan said.


He took the case to the property commission over a year ago, but he said it has still not been resolved.


Abdul Qadoos is a former mujahedin commander whose house was confiscated by a soldier last year. “I don’t know why these powerful people seize people’s houses,” he said. “I have been trying to solve the case of my house for the last six months.” Because he doesn’t live in Kabul, it’s very hard for him to keep tracking the slow progress of his complaint.


The commission has heard and made recommendations on 475 of the complaints it’s received since February 2002, but the process gets bogged down in the courts.


Only nine of the claims have been decided in favor of the claimants; another 89 rejected; and nine resolved by the parties themselves, said Molavi Izhar-ul-Haq Shinwari, the head of the property claims court.


Another major group of complaints is against the people called “10-percenters” - people, during the mujahedin civil war, who had made a 10 per cent deposit and some mortgage payments on houses built by the government.


When these homeowners - most of them mujahedin - fled during the Taleban regime, the government re-sold the houses. Now some of the original occupants have returned and forced out the new ones. The authorities decreed four months ago that former should be removed, and new houses would be built for them. But the plan has yet to be carried out.


One other complainant is the government’s Pashtan Trade Bank. In some cases, homeowners defaulted on loans from the bank, which has reclaimed some of the houses. But others have also been taken over by Kabul’s strongmen.


“We now have a small number of those [defaulted loan] houses in our possession; the rest are seized by powerful people and they don’t pay us rent,” said Taj Mohammad Akbar, director of the bank. “The police in some cases are doing a good job of helping us, but in other cases they are not.”


Meanwhile, the plaintiffs have to find another place to live. And rents in Kabul have been very high because of the huge demand from refugees and foreign aid workers.


The government has confiscated some properties to address the acute housing needs, but when the owners of these homes have come along with proof of ownership they have been returned.


For example, the interior ministry took over a house, but when the owner came and presented his papers “as servicemen of the country we opted to move to another place”, said ministry official Noor Mohammad.


Rahim Gul Sarwan is an independent journalist in Kabul.


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