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

Kabul Property Crisis

With whole areas of the city still uninhabitable, Kabul officials are struggling to find residents somewhere to rebuild their lives
By Abdel Baseer

The third floor of the Kabul municipality offices is a scene of absolute chaos. There is hardly any room to move or breathe, as hundreds of desperate Afghans cram the corridors, all shuffling and jostling in their efforts to reach the property office and discover if - at long last - they have been allocated a precious piece of land.


The names of the lucky few are posted on pieces of paper pinned up outside the property office. But for every successful application, there are scores of failures.


"I applied for some land in 1995. Unfortunately, since that time, I have not even been able to get to the right office to discuss my case," Ahmed Waheed told IWPR as he searched for his name on the lists.


"People find it hard to understand the system, however much we explain it to them," said one exasperated security official, struggling to control the throng. "In my opinion, we should just put the lists behind glass windows on the first floor and not even let people come up here."


Large areas of the Afghan capital lie in ruin - littered with landmines and covered by the debris of decades of war. All these hazards must be cleared, and water and electricity supplies repaired and reconnected, before families can think of rebuilding.


As a result, land is at a premium and the municipality is swamped by demand it cannot hope to meet. Officials estimate there are currently about 3,000 to 4,000 plots in various stages of rehabilitation, which are to be allocated for family houses. With the extended Afghan family averaging at around ten people, this means a maximum of 40,000 can be catered for under the programme.


The problem is exacerbated by the return of more than a million refugees, which has swollen the city's population to the extent that nobody is sure how many people live in Kabul.


And, as usual in Afghanistan, political influence is rearing its ugly head. Men from the city's armed factions - who act as police and militia - regard a piece of land as a perk of the job and the government has ordered the property department to accommodate them.


"I regret to say a large share of our plots are taken by the ministries of defence and national security," said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.


"We had to give 150 plots each to these two departments, 50 plots to the ministry of education and ten plots each to the other ministries."


If a large number are officially allocated to security services, many more are simply taken over by men with guns - nominally part of the new security or defence services.


Property department director Abdul Azim Azami told IWPR that he was trying to hand over plots on a site called Seh Sad Wa Panzda to Kabulis who lost their homes in the war. "While these 2,000 plots have already been allocated to applicants, the land has not yet been transferred due to problems with armed men," he said.


Elsewhere in the capital, there are many thousands of disputes over who legally owns the houses that still stand. Afghanistan's wars caused tremendous disruption and many families tried to manage their property while in exile, with the result that two or more families can claim to have ownership documents for the same home.


"We left in the early Nineties, when the civil war became too much," said one resident, who would only be identified by the name of Farid. "We rented the house to a family we knew but later on, there was a chain of renters living there and we lost control. One paid a bribe to get some documents and sold the house to another man. Now he claims our house is his."


Farid's family, who returned from Pakistan earlier this year, has managed to take physical possession of the house after negotiations with the people who had occupied it for the past two years. However, the dispute is still rumbling on.


While President Hamid Karzai last month announced a national commission to review all land disputes, some are so complicated that they may take years to unravel.


Meanwhile, thousands of Afghans get by as best they can - in tents pegged on empty plots of land, inside commercial containers with squares cut out for windows, but mostly through extended family networks. A house or apartment designed for one family is often crammed with cousins, nephews, in-laws or close friends.


Officials say the land distribution process should be extended from its current narrow basis - restitution to people who can prove their homes were destroyed - into a broader development project.


The city's planning policy was dictated by 23 years of destruction and is now totally inadequate for Kabul's new era of peace. So while the government scrambles for land to give its homeless citizens, the people keep pouring into the municipality office, still hoping beyond hope that their name will be posted on the wall.


Abdel Baseer Saeed is a freelance journalist in Kabul


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