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Reversing the Great Afghan Land Grab

Years of war and lawlessness have left property rights hopelessly snarled up, and Afghans fighting mad as a result. Now a draft law aims to unravel the mess.
By IWPR
Muhammad Azim, 67, was a landowner before he left his native Baghlan province 20 years ago to escape the war between the Soviet-backed Afghan government and the mujahedin. He only came back two years ago, and was startled to find shops and houses dotting his two hectares of land in the provincial capital Pul-e-Khumri.



“My son-in-law illegally took the title to my land when I left,” he said. “Then when he left as well, the land was stolen by two [militia] commanders. They in turn sold it on to other people, who built houses on it.”



Azim said it was now proving almost impossible to reclaim his property, since at the time the militia members sold it on, the transaction passed as legal.



“The commanders controlled the city government and the courts,” he complained. “Now both those commanders are dead, killed in the wars. And there are a thousand deeds to my land. People have sold it to others, and those people to others still, and no one recognises me as the true owner.”



Azim’s tangled story is far from unusual in Afghanistan, where 25 years of war caused massive population dislocation, and property rights became blurred and forgotten as people came and went. Now refugees are coming back and looking for their lands.



But it is going to be difficult for Afghanistan’s government to undo the damage caused by successive regimes of the past, each of which tried to legitimise its rule by recognising land claims, often on shaky or false legal grounds.



Some of the misappropriated land belonged to the government itself.



Noor Muhammad, a long-time resident of Kabul, owns a piece of land in Kart-e-Se, in the city’s northwest corner. Behind his house lay a tract of land that was set aside to be used as a kindergarten when President Najibullah was in power, prior to 1992. This land lay empty through years of civil war and then Taleban rule - until now.



“Some very powerful commanders have now seized the land,” he said. “People who saw themselves as symbols of the [mujahedin] resistance just took it, and now they have built skyscrapers on it.”



According to the government, more than 600,000 hectares of private and public land have been seized illegally during the last two-and-a-half decades of war.



Minister of Urban Development Yousuf Pashtoon explained how illegally appropriated land can be divided into four distinct categories.



“Almost 70 per cent of it is public property that has been stolen by warlords,” he said. In addition, privately-owned land was appropriated by various strongmen as well as by whichever government happened to be in power. There were also cases where one arm of government illegally seized land belonging to another official agency.



“This is a disaster for Afghanistan,” said Pashtoon, saying the property situation is the main barrier to implementing a master plan for urban development, he added.



“We are struggling to return those lands to their rightful owners, but current laws in Afghanistan are not adequate for dealing with this problem. We need a new law,” he said. “We have already drafted a bill that would allow the restitution of unlawfully appropriated lands, and we have submitted it to the Ministry of Justice.”



This new law had to be designed with Afghanistan’s tangled history in mind.



“For example, say some property was appropriated by a warlord during the conflicts, and he received a clear title to from the courts of the day,” explained Pashtoon. “Or say that a parcel of land has multiple purchase deeds. The current law is unable to deal with this.”



The new law would provide for special courts which would dig through past documentation relating to disputed lands to determine the rightful owner.



The government may have a hard time getting the law passed. The legislature, which is dominated by many of the old-style mujahedin commanders, is opposed to any efforts to revise existing property arrangements.



“The government is just trying to make itself look good by drafting such these bills,” said parliamentarian Alimi Balkhi. “It is not true that every case needs a new law. Most of these land cases are very clear. The government should have taken action over the past five years. They have missed a lot of chances. But a new law will not automatically solve the problem. They have to move slowly.”



Meanwhile, land grabs continue apace, and people still lack confidence in the judicial system as a way of protecting their ownership rights.



A resident of the northern Balkh province, who was afraid to give his name, told IWPR that his 2.4 hectares of land had been confiscated by militias controlled by General Abdul Rashid Dostum.



“I know the government cannot protect me. They cannot give me back my land, either. If I complain, I will just be killed,” he said.



The problem is that those in positions of power are often the same men who appropriated landholdings in past years.



“If you try to get justice, the people you go to are the warlords. They extorted land yesterday - today they are the judges,” he said.



Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh, acknowledges the problem, but says that the central government is making things difficult.



“I have returned thousands of hectares of property belonging to public and local organisations which had been extorted by the warlords,” he said. “But we still have a lot of problems. For example, a decision by a high-ranking institution, such as the Supreme Court, can force us to give up public property to a person who is not entitled to it.”



Disagreements among various branches of government have led to several very public squabbles.



Attorney general Abdul Jabar Sabet, who visited the northern provinces in October, said that close to three-quarters of all cases referred to his jurisdiction involved land disputes.



“This is a tragedy,” he said.



In his seven months in office, Sabet has tried hard to rein in the resurgent warlords and has devoted a large chunk of his time to addressing the land issue.



During his northern trip in October, he accused Younus Moqim, the mayor of Mazar-e-Sharif, of misappropriating eight hectares of public land. The regional governor, Atta, defended the mayor - prompting a row between provincial and central authorities. Atta emerged the victor, sending Sabet back to Kabul with little to show for his efforts.



The land issue has been a thorn in the government’s side for years. In 2004, land disputes led to several bloody conflicts in Balkh province, with dozens of casualties.



Qayoom Babak, a political analyst in Balkh, has little faith in the law to remedy the situation.



“Many of those who extorted property in the past are now in positions of power within the government,” he said. “They are members of parliament, they are governors, they are ministers. In short, they are the government. Can the government prosecute itself?”



Ordinary people seem to agree.



“The judicial, legislative and executive branches of power are made up of people who have been involved in tens of thousands of crimes. So to whom can people complain to uphold their rights?” asked Naseer Ahmad, a student at Balkh University.



Pashtoon insists that the government is serious about trying to remedy the situation.



“By drafting a new law on property rights, we are trying to return properties that have been misappropriated, no matter how difficult this proves. The property issue is just as bad for Afghanistan as the problem of corruption problem,” he said.



A militia commander in the north who has been unemployed since going through the United Nations-sponsored process termed Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration, said he was now facing some problems because of past land deals. He has been accused of misappropriating dozens of hectares of private land, and of bribing officials to authorise land purchases made at a very low price.



He denies these allegations and says he should not be deprived of legal possession on the whim of a court.



“I am not afraid that my land will be taken from me. I did everything legally,” he said angrily. “I purchased that land. It is not possible that one court approves a purchase deed, then another court comes along and annuls it.”



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



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