The Last of the Afghanistan Nomads Enter The Modern World (By: Robert J. Galbraith in Kabul, Afghanistan). 10/10/05
After centuries of wondering across the deserts and mountain passes of Afghanistan and Pakistan with their herds of sheep and camels, one of the world’s largest nomadic peoples; the Kuchi shepherds of Afghanistan, are putting down roots and building permanent homes and villages.
Following the more than two decades of war and civil turmoil that has plagued this nation, as well as a crippling seven-year drought, the Kuchi have decided to settle together and become established as a new political force in the fledgling Government of Afghanistan.
Their hope (after the September 18th Parliamentary elections), is that they will have the political clout and influence to acquire government assistance in building homes, hospitals, schools and wells in their new communities. They want these changes so that their children can break free of illiteracy, despair and uncertainty, and become part of the modern world, while still retaining their Kuchi heritage.
“If there is any chance to stay here for our children, we will change our nomadic lifestyle and build and stay – for our children. We are tired of coming and going, we are tired,” said Kuchi nomad Yosef Khan, a thirty-year-old man who looks past 50-years of age, with deeply wrinkled skin, heavily bronzed by the relentless Afghan sun and the cutting winds that blast through the mountain valleys.
It was September 18th, election day in Afghanistan (perhaps the most important day in the history of the Kuchi), as Khan and a group of his fellow nomads stood waiting to vote in tents set-up on the 30- square-mile expanse of burning plain (10 miles east of Kabul), that they say is destined to be their launching pad into the future.
Khan’s dream, is for the Kuchi to hold onto their traditions, while stepping into the uncertain world of modernity. His hopes seem like an unreachable mirage, so fleeting but so common in this land of war and pain.
Perhaps destined to be the last in the line of a hundred generations of wanderers, Khan spread his outstretched arm in a giant sweeping arc, encompassing the great plain of rock-hard-mud and sparse, prickly vegetation that is to be the new homeland to the Kuchi.
“We have 6000 families spread out across this great plain, and are organizing and will vote for whoever will help our country, not just ourselves,” he explained. “We have been nomads for hundreds of years, then the war brought lots of problems. Now we do day labour, we have no cattle, we have transport problems, now we walk to find work.”
The downfall for the Kuchi started in 1979, when the Soviet invasion swept over Afghanistan. The Soviets targeted the Kuchi shepherds, who were also arms smugglers and members of the Mujaheddin, who brought guns as well as their sheep and camels, across the border from Pakistan, selling them to whoever paid the highest price.
Most of the weapons and ammunition were used by the Mujaheddin against the Soviets. They carried out a guerrilla war against the godless Soviets, inflicting heavy loss of life and equipment against America’s former ‘Cold War’ enemy.
To counter the flow of arms, the USSR war machine directed attacks upon the Kuchi wanderers, with devastating results. They bombed the Kuchi and their herds, dropped millions of mines from helicopters onto their pastureland, and drove the nomads into the mountains, many, with only their shirts on their backs, and their children, wives and elders in tow. The war with the Soviets was to be heralded as the beginning of the end for the free-roaming Kuchi.
“When they bombed them, they left their animals and everything they owned. They ran with their families and children, and headed for the mountains,” explained Ahmed-Wali Ahmedzai, a Kuchi himself, and a Liaison with the JEMB (Joint Electoral Management Body) for the Kuchi tribes in the Kabul region.
Ahmedzai said of the approximate 7000 Kuchi spread across the east-Kabul plain, 6000 will vote. “The process is going so good. They are coming out to vote in numbers.” There were 68 Kuchi candidates vying for the ten seats available for them, out of a total 249 seats in the Parliamentary elections. “Seven of the seats will be for men, and 3 for women,” he said. “There is an informal tribal law to vote Kuchi.” The tribal elders held a strong say in who to vote for.
Out of a population of approximately 2-3 million Kuchi (who speak the Pashtun dialect and are one of the two main linguistic groups, along with Dari, that make up the bilingually classified Afghanistan), only 532,826 had registered to vote, with the JEMB providing 1,600 poling stations for them. (Twelve-and-a-half-million Afghans had registered to vote, out of a total population of around 25 million).
Most of the Kuchi, who were traveling at the time of the election and moving their animals from the high summer pastures to the low winter valleys, didn’t vote. “Those candidates who are elected will help us for a share of the work and a share of the government,” said 60-year-old Kuchi nomad, Haji Hakem. “They will guarantee our rights. This place is related to the Kuchi for the grass for our animals, then the Soviets drove us out. Now the Kuchi elders have asked us to come back. It is our right to ask the government to build, schools, hospitals and drugstores,” said Hakem. “Now we don’t have anything, but we will stay in this area and settle forever.”
Haji Mula Tarakhil, an elder leader of the Tarakhil-Kuchi sub-tribe in Kabul, says that the Kuchi are at the crossroads of their existence. “If we compare the present with the 15th century, our life is not the same, it is worse, so we are worse off now than 5 centuries ago,” explained Tarakhil. “I know that we have more problems now, and when I see present Kuchi life, we become very sad and hurt because we have no possibility to bring them to a higher lifestyle. So we will attempt to renew their lives and bring facilities, but actually, we are very sad, because of the situation we are in.”
Last year, Tarakhil and other Kuchi elder leaders met with Afghanistan’s President, Karzai, to discuss Kuchi issues. “We had a meeting with Karzai and we raised some complaints with his Ministry of Education, because we have no schools for the Kuchi children,” said Tarakhil. “Karzai told the Minister of Education to build separate Kuchi schools in each separate province, but they still haven’t built them. So we must keep pushing and using political clout. It is a constant battle.”
But education is just one issue being discussed. “We have no livestock, no public health care, no funds for building homes and buying land, as we were promised,” he said. “The traditional Kuchi (those still living the nomadic lifestyle who reside in tents) have no mobile clinics, and it’s very difficult for them to find transport to come to the city for treatment, so many traditional Kuchi need mobile health clinics,” concluded Tarakhil.
Two months after the Parliamentary Elections, fifty-year-old Haji Mhamud Azrat stand on the roof of his new mud-brick adobe home, laying a roof of mud and straw, on the vast plain of land, flanked on each side by snow topped mountains, east of Kabul. The one story home, 30 feet by 20 feet, is the first that he and his family have ever constructed, on land given him by the Afghanistan Government.
“This is the only home we have ever built. Because we don’t have anywhere to go, and the tents we use are very cold, we are building this house,” said the elder member of his family, which includes 50 members, from sons, sons-in-law, to grandsons and granddaughters, and two wives.
“Where this home is being built, is land given us by the government. We are happy about the government giving us this land to build a house, and hope in the future, that our lives will become better. But it would be good to have a little bit of money from the government, so we can furnish it.”
Azrat says that regardless of the one-going drought, the worst blow to his lifestyle came at the hands of the former Soviet regime (1979-1989).”Before the Soviets came, we had 1000 goats, sheep, donkeys and camels, now we have only 100 animals. Five-hundred of our sheep and donkeys were killed by the Soviets with AK47 rifles and mines, the rest by drought,” explained Azrat, a man who looks well over his age of 50 years, as is the norm with the Kuchi nomads (the life expectancy of an Afghan is just 47 years, compared with 80 years for Canadians). “At the time of the Soviets, we smuggled arms to the Mujihadeen, we fought with them, and we took the injured to hospital. When the Soviets did us bad – we returned it. We were the Mujahideen!”
The United States was the main backer of the Mujahideen during the Soviet regime, providing intelligence, arms and finances. Azrat knows this, and appreciates the help they are now providing for Afghanistan. “We appreciate the US Military being here in our country, to build our country, but when they have finished helping us, we wish for them to return to their homes. We also wish from all the internationals, NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and our government, to give to help us build our homes and furnish them, as well as giving us access to wells (now restricted by certain tribal and non-tribal warlords) and to build wells for water, here on this land.”
The lack of schooling for the Kuchi children is another issue the weather and war-hardened nomad are concerned about. “Without education, our children won’t know about their forefathers and Gods. Without education, they will only know their fathers and mothers. We all voted for the person who knows what is best for us, to bring us a better future and security. When Afghanistan is re-built, everyone will have a home built – and we will prosper,” said Azrat.
But not all Kuchi feel the election and the coming change is a positive step for the Kuchi. “There are many Kuchi who are not happy with the election results. The problem is that the Kuchi are in each 30 provinces, but they only gave us 10 provincial seats. So the seats are not a good representation of all Kuchi,” said Ashraf Ahmadzai, head of the Shura tribe of Kuchi, in Kabul. “Among the 3 women candidates who were elected to represent us, they are not Kuchi. They are settled, they are not nomadic, so they deprived us of our rights. They are from the City of Kabul, they are television personalities.”
Ahmadzai believes there was widespread fraud (ballot stuffing and paying elder leaders for their peoples support in being elected) committed during the elections. “About this fraud, we spoke to the election officials, but none heard us. This will create a social problem.”
Thirty-six-year-old Farida Kochi, a female candidate who was not elected to the Parliament, believes that, “the elected women candidates are little birds, they think they are nightingales, but they are university nightingales. What type of identity will they bring to our children, will they want our young women to wears pants as they do, to have premarital affairs? They will corrupt our life!”
Kochi, a widow and mother of 4 children, believes the modern female candidates will, “open the door to many problems. Out of the political framework, they will make us change our lifestyle.”
But Kochi, who wears traditional Kuchi clothing and has tribal symbols tattooed on her face, feels that the Kuchi traditionalists can still take advantage of modernization, without giving up the identity and the traditions that make them who they are – shepherd nomads. “For the last thirty-years we sacrificed our lives for this country. We sacrificed our men as martyrs, and lost our animals to war and drought, now we live like refugees. People tell us we are dirty and nasty.” Continuing, she said, “it’s OK for Kuchi youth to become a doctor or a nurse, but stick to your traditions, don’t sacrifice who you are and where you came from. We don’t want to apply the same example, to our people, of what happened to the cultures of the Canadian Indians. We want to preserve our traditional identity.”
However, Kuchi nomad shepherd turned home builder, Haji Mhamud Azrat, believes that the answer to the Kuchi problems will only come from above. “We are happy with our life, we are happy to be living together. Only our Gods will really help us, nothing else,” concluded Azrat.