There are increasing fears of an imminent outbreak of ethnic conflict in central Afghanistan over access to grazing land between Kuchis and Hazaras.
The estimated 2-3 million Kuchis (nomads) - predominately Pashtuns - have traditionally moved all over the country with their camels, sheep, goats and donkeys in search of greener pastures. At the start of spring they normally flock into the central provinces where most of Afghanistan's third largest ethnic minority, the Hazaras (9 percent of the population), live. The Hazara have warned that Kuchis will not be allowed to graze animals in "their" areas.
Hundreds of Hazaras demonstrated in Kabul on 30 March, threatening to take up arms and fight if Kuchi herders entered Bamiyan and Wardak provinces.
"If the government does not stop Kuchis from entering our areas, we will do so by all possible means," said a leader of Hazara demonstrators in Kabul. "Down with Kuchis," chanted others.
Kuchis say their right to pasture-land has been denied by the Hazara minority and they have no option but to fight for it. "Because the government is weak and cannot ensure our legitimate rights we may have to fight for them," said a young Kuchi man, Nazargul.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has indicated that parts of the country could be affected by more drought than usual in 2008. Kuchis in southern and eastern provinces - where drought is anticipated to be more severe - could thus be prompted to move to less drought-affected provinces in the north and centre of the country.
Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and the Independent Directorate of Kuchi Affairs (IDKA) are concerned that clashes between Hazaras and Kuchis could be worse than in previous years. "Given that both parties lack confidence in the government's ability to solve their disputes they may try to defeat each other by violent means," warned the AIHRC's Hamidi.
Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN
|Both Hazaras and Kuchis say they will fight for their rights, unless President Hamid Karzai immediately addresses their dispute|
The AIHRC warning was echoed by the director of IDKA who said grievances on both sides had become "dangerous". "There are strong possibilities that a future conflict could turn into a widespread battle with devastating results," said Daudshah Niazi, the head of the IDKA.
Kuchi elders complain that since the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001, Hazaras have enjoyed strong international support and been given opportunities in the government and other decision-making bodies, while Kuchis have been perceived as collaborators of the mainly Pashtun Taliban and "terrorists".
"Because they are in a position of power, Hazaras have objected to all the traditional norms and laws in this country and have denied us access to a main source of livelihood," said Abdul Ghani, an elderly Kuchi.
Hazara leaders counter by saying they have been repressed by the more numerous Pashtuns for centuries - a situation which the Kuchis are trying to perpetuate. "We only want to end their oppression and only want our rights," said Ali Orfani, a Hazara leader in Kabul.
The AIHRC blamed the government for not doing enough to end growing tensions between Hazaras and Kuchis.
"This problem recurs every year," Farid Hamidi, a member of the AIHRC, told IRIN in Kabul, adding: "The government has not taken appropriate measures to solve it."
In July 2007, after several people were reportedly killed in clashes between Kuchi herders and Hazara settlers in Behsood District, Wardak Province, President Karzai set up a commission to investigate the causes of conflict and recommend a solution. The commission made a number of suggestions - one of which was that Kuchis should have access to grazing lands in Hazara areas, according to the IDKA's Niazi, a member of the commission.
The president has yet to rule on the issue. A spokesperson for Karzai was not available for comment.