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

Friction Over Land Rights in South

After years of war and unrest, conflicts abound over who owns what property.
By Hafizullah Ghashtalai

Disputes over land rights, well-documented in Kabul, have become a contentious issue in other parts of Afghanistan, as homes and properties destroyed or abandoned during the years of war have been taken over by government officials and military.

In the southern city of Khost, 212 families have been ordered out of what they insist are their homes by the local government. Since August, 110 families in the city’s Pir Kalai district and 102 families in Mandikhel have been made homeless.

"We don't have any place for the night,” said Pir Hussein Jamal, whose family lived in Pir Kalai. “Sometimes we live here and other times there. At the beginning we didn't have any place [to live], and we became a burden on our relatives and neighbours, but now some of us have found rental houses.”

Everyone agrees land ownership here has a long and tangled history. According to Abdul Hakim Taniwal, the governor of Khost province, the families that he ordered to be removed had lost their rights to the land when they abandoned it decades ago.

Taniwal said that, in 1978, after the Communist takeover of Afghanistan, “the land was redistributed to soldiers and civil servants, who built houses according to the municipal building plan.”

But the families say they did not leave their land until 1978. They returned to Pir Kalai in 1992 and occupied the homes, which were empty at the time. Soon afterwards, people who had once lived in these houses also returned. “Now the owners of the houses have returned as well, and want their houses back,” said Taniwal.

Residents of Pir Kalai and Mandikhel say Taniwal either doesn’t have the complete story, or he doesn’t want to know it. They say he is giving their homes away to soldiers and commanders of his provincial army.

Most of the families forced out of their homes say legal documents exist for their lands and houses, and that it’s just a matter of locating them.

“We spent money on these houses, but now we have been driven out of them by force and no one will listen to us,” said Hussein Jamal. “Copies of our documents exist in Kabul and Gardez, we have paid tax on these lands and we have the receipts [to show that] as well.”

The owners have documents for the land and tax records, which were housed in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province of which Khost used to be a district before it was made into a separate administrative region.

A court in Gardez ruled in favour of the families, but the governor of Khost says the ruling isn’t valid. Enforcement of local court judgements is often difficult in Afghanistan as rule of law has yet to be re-established.

To complicate matters further, Khost’s deputy mayor Haji Sakhi said that fighting in 2002 between governor Taniwal and Pacha Khan Zadran, a local warlord who was governor of Khost before him, caused a fire that burned down city buildings containing land deeds and public files.

‘Only special courts could solve such issues now but we don’t have branches of such courts here in Khost,” said Sakhi.

A taxi driver in Khost told IWPR that he witnessed residents of Pir Kalai and Mandikhel being driven out of their houses in late September by local soldiers. “Their luggage and [other belongings] were thrown out and trampled on in the mud. Over and above this, the residents were beaten by the soldiers,” he said.

Many Khost city residents were outraged by the news.

"The officials don't have the right to drive people out of their houses by force,” said Mohammed Anwar, a city resident. “Since they’ve expelled the residents of Peer Kalai and Mandikhel villages, they could drive out somebody else from their home. They should be resolutely stopped from doing this.”

But others support the local government. “The government officials were right, because these families did not own or build these houses,” said Zahed Shah Angar, editor of an independent newspaper in Khost province.

The United Nations and Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission have called for a resolution of the issue.

The housing issue in Khost has become more problematic since Taniwal authorised the building of a bus station in Pir Kalai in late December.

City officials defend the move. "The bus station is temporary, we didn’t have any other place to put it. We will move it once the Pir Kalai land issue has been resolved in court,” said Sakhi.

But residents of Khost say time is of the essence. They say they are afraid that fighting will break out if the issue is not resolved soon.

Hafizullah Ghashtalai is an independent journalist in Khost.

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