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

Land Disputes Unsettle the North

Thousands of refugees come home to find that local commanders have expropriated their property.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi

Afghanistan is being hit by a growing number of disputes over land ownership, caused by years of upheaval and war, the return of refugees and continuing land seizures by local militia commanders.


In the north, hundreds say their property has been taken by force by local commanders. One man was killed in a gunfight over land.


The transitional government has sent an official delegation to the regional capital, Mazar-e-Sharif, to investigate the problem and has set up a special court in Kabul to deal with land disputes.


But the central government remains too weak to act against local commanders or the regional warlords who serve as their sponsors and protectors.


The question of land ownership has become more contentious in recent years for several reasons: twenty-three years of war has displaced millions; land-rights documents have been lost; the system of public administration and civil law has been largely destroyed. Drought and land mines have intensified demand for safe and productive land.


After years in exile, refugees are now returning to find the land they thought was theirs occupied and claimed by others.


In many cases, refugees’ land was distributed by the local commanders who continue to seize private property by force. A law unto themselves, these local commanders have also appropriated government and other public property.


“So far more than 8,000 refugees whose properties have been usurped mostly by local commanders have come to us for help,” said Mohammad Arif Rizai, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council in Mazar-e-Sharif.


“But when cases involving gunmen are taken to court, the legal judgements do not have proper results,” he said.


In an incident in Mazar in May, one man was killed and two were injured in a clash over land located about five kilometres south of the city.


Two rival militias were involved in the shootout, each claiming the property. The police said it belonged to the government; a local farmer said it was his.


“I have worked for 30 years on this land and I have the legal ownership document,” said Sayeed Isaq, who farmed the land to feed his family of ten.


Not only do the local commanders ride roughshod over people’s land rights, they have set-up their own kangaroo courts - illegal “commissions” - to decide disputes.


Not surprisingly, most the judgements handed up by these “commissions” are in favour of the local commanders who set them up.


“These commissions don’t solve the problems, but create more problems,’ said Abdul Manan Mawlawizada, the head of the courts in Balkh province.


Mawlawizada admitted that the justice system was failing to overcome the problem of “corrupt people in government offices and courts”. That failure, he said, was leading to clashes and bloodshed.


He also blamed the widespread availability of guns in Afghan society as one of the main problems in attempting to administer a proper justice system governing land rights.


In April, 500 people who claimed commanders had taken their land went to see the provincial governor to complain about the situation. So far, however, they say the authorities have not taken any action.


Habibullah Habib, the acting governor of Balkh province, said that land ownership disputes could not be resolved easily or quickly.


He said that competing parties were often able to produce documents showing they were the rightful owners of the property.


Mohammad Yunus Moqim, the mayor of Mazar-e-Sharif, said a new project in the province will seek to resettle 20,000 families and that 40 per cent of the land previously redistributed by the local commanders will be given to returning refugees so they may start a new life.


‘With the implementation of this project, the problem of refugees in Balkh province will be solved,’ he claimed.


Meanwhile, an official delegation from Kabul, including representatives from the ministry of justice, has been in Mazar-e-Sharif investigating the seizure of government and public property and to look at ways to clarify private land rights.


Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is a staff reporter for IWPR in Mazar-e-Sharif.


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