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Crossfire Forces Wardak Farmers Off Land

Locals abandon orchards after getting caught up in fighting between US forces and insurgents.
By Habiburahman Ibrahimi
Khadi Khan, 26, stares sadly at what is left of his orchard. For 15 years he and his family nurtured and tended it. Now all that remains of their hard work, as well as their main source of income, are dead trees, broken by weapons and dried out from lack of water.

Khan’s orchard lies in an area that has become a battlefield for the American forces and Taleban over the last year. He and his family have fled to the other side of the village, where they live in the ruins of another house.

This is life in Salar village, in the Sayed Abad district of Wardak, a province only 35 kilometres south-west of Kabul. Until the security situation began to deteriorate several months ago, the province was considered a recreational area by many Kabul residents, who would escape the dust and heat of the city to picnic amid the green hills, plentiful streams and beautiful orchards of Wardak.

But the fighting that has all but taken over the south has moved further and further north. The Taleban have established frequent checkpoints, and forces loyal to Hezb-e-Islami, the Islamist party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have also deployed along the main roads. The Americans, too, have moved in, and the combination is an explosive one.

“Just one year ago, Wardak province was peaceful,” Khan said. “People could live and work normally. But after the Americans came about six months ago, the Taleban and Hezb-e-Islami came along as well. The Americans established checkpoints in different parts of the province and the insurgents started fighting against them. Things are getting worse by the day.”

Those whose lands are located near the American bases or Taleban checkpoints fear for their lives when they go to tend their orchards. Farms that are not destroyed by direct fighting are withering from neglect.

“The people have been caught in a trap,” Khan said bitterly. “They can be killed by the Americans or the governmental forces as well as by the Taleban.”

People are leaving en masse, he said. And it’s not just Sayed Abad district – farmers from Nerkh, Jalrez and Chak are also fleeing the fighting.

According to engineer Fazel Omar, director of the local department of agriculture, the exodus could do great economic damage to the area.

“The farmers of Wardak are facing many problems,” he said. “More than 50 per cent of the people here earn their living from these orchards. If things continue this way, they will have to leave, and this will result in great loss for Afghan agriculture.”

In Sultan Khel village, next to Salar, Sayed Rahman hired a labourer for his orchard five months ago. “One night he was out watering, but then the Americans started shooting at him. He ran away and now the orchard has completely dried up,” he said.

Rahman’s employee was lucky. Another labourer named Sayed Hassan lost his life when he was watering the trees. According to Alam Gul, the chairman of the local council in Sayed Abad district, there are also two other cases of villagers who were shot by American forces while they were watering their orchards at night.

“We get in trouble with both the government forces and the Taleban,” he said.

In most areas of Afghanistan, the water level drops in mid-summer and farmers are allocated specific hours for irrigating their lands. They have to follow the schedule, no matter the time, so many farmers find themselves watering their orchards in the middle of the night.

But both United States forces and insurgents are apt to be jumpy when they see someone out at odd hours, and several villagers have paid the price.

Shahedullah Shahed, spokesman for Wardak’s governor, agrees that farmers are in a precarious situation.

“We have received written complaints from Nerkh, Jalrez, Sayed Abad and Chak,” he told IWPR. “We have also discussed this problem with the US forces in Wardak.”

According to Shahed, the provincial government has agreed with the Americans that if a farmer has to water his lands at night, he should carry a lantern with him at all times to identify him as a non-combatant.

But this does not always help.

“I know that a farmer in Sayed Abad was shot even though he had a lantern,” he said. “The villagers came to me to complain. They had a meeting with the governor and he said he would work to prevent such attacks.”

But the residents of Wardak are not optimistic. NATO and Coalition forces have not had a good record of acknowledging civilian casualties over the past several years. A new policy recently put in place by NATO head General Stanley McChrystal has promised to make civilian protection the priority, but it will take some time to overcome the fear and distrust of the local population.

“The ruins you see over there are what is left of my forefather’s house,” said Khan, pointing to the other side of the road in Salar village. “It was the victim of the Russian slogan ‘housing, clothing and food’. So we built a new house and orchard here. But then came the Americans talking about democracy, freedom and security. The Russians and the Americans are both wolves; they just have different faces.”

In Logar, the province next to Wardak, the situation is similar. “Our orchards are ruled by the Americans and Afghan police during the day and by the Taleban during the night,” said Rahimullah, 29, from Pul-e Alam, the provincial capital. “We can neither irrigate our orchards nor collect our harvests.”

The main responsibility for the insecurity around the orchards lies with the Taleban, says Din Mohammad Darwish, the spokesperson of the governor of Logar. “Taleban fighters attack American and Afghan forces from the people’s houses and orchards. So the American and Afghan forces have to fire back in return,” he said.

That’s not true, says Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mojahed. “Our fighters don’t attack foreigners from the people’s houses. However, if they see the enemy in the forest, they will attack him. But our fighters are from the villages so they know exactly who is who. On the other side the Americans and the Afghan military attack anybody with a light at night-time, because they fear even their own shadow,” he said

Gholam Shakhi doesn’t have any problems. His orchard in the village Aryab in Wardak is located far from the checkpoints of the Americans, government forces and the Taleban.

“My orchard bore a lot of fruit this year so I hope to collect a good harvest,” he said. He paused, and then chuckled, “But I do hope my orchard will not be infected with the disease called the Americans and the Taleban.”

Habiburahman Ibrahimi is a freelance reporter in Wardak.

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