Afghan nomads

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at CCAT.SAS.UPENN.EDU
Thu Nov 7 13:35:22 UTC 2002

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Re this report from the NYTimes: does anyone know whether the Kuchi are
(a) one tribe speaking one language, or (b) this is a term for 'nomad' in
some language (Pashto?), or anything else?

Hal Schiffman

---------- Forwarded message ----------

NYTimes,  November 6, 2002

A Nomadic Way of Life Is at Risk in Afghanistan


    PAGHMAN, Afghanistan Hundreds of families with camel trains, donkeys,
sheep and goats were on the move in October, trailing south and east in
tireless motion across desert trails and alongside roads. They were not
refugees returning home or fleeing conflict, but Afghan nomads, Kuchi,
migrating to their winter lands in a centuries-old tradition. Young women,
with beads and metal ornaments jangling from their hair and clothing,
chased after wayward animals to clear them off the road, their colorful
skirts billowing as they ran. Women also led camels, laden with the tents
and household goods, while men roamed far and high on the steep hillsides
with the bulk of the herds.

Kuchi have a special place in Afghan life. Both feared and romanticized,
they have always been powerful within the tribal system, as the country's
main providers of meat, sheepskins and wool, and as wealthy moneylenders
and traders. But because of war and drought, their numbers have dwindled
and those who survive have fallen into penury, their flocks having greatly
shrunk. Many are now reduced to living off food handouts in refugee camps.
The situation the Kuchi face is so bad that Afghan and foreign aid
officials have started a program to try to save them and their way of
life. Barmak Pazhwak, a policy adviser at the Ministry of Rural
Rehabilitation and Development, said helping the Kuchis survive had been
identified by the government as one of its priorities for the winter, with
a focus on providing water, food and employment and helping rebuild their

Nobody really knows how many Kuchi there are, said Frauke de Weijer, a
consultant from the World Food Program in Afghanistan, who has just
completed a study on the vulnerability of the nomads. She estimates a
population of 1.3 million to 1.5 million, down from 2 million to 2.5
million in the 1960's and 70's. Not all the Kuchi were reached by the
survey, but Ms. de Weijer listed some stark facts. "Of those who have
recently fallen destitute, 50 percent have no livestock left," she said.
"People who had, say, 500 sheep, now only have 100, and they are the
richest ones. "In the south, 75 percent have no livestock at all."

Of the estimated 300,000 to 400,000 displaced people living in southern
Afghanistan, most are Kuchi, she said. "They are one of the most
vulnerable populations in Afghanistan." The poverty of the Kuchi is only
too clear even in Kabul, where residents have seen Kuchi come unusually
close to the city with their families this year, setting up camp in
deserted factory compounds in an industrial area on the eastern edge of
town. A group of families from the Ibrahim Khel tribe said they had
pitched their camp for a week so the men could find casual labor in the
city to pay for the journey by truck back to their winter lands in eastern

Without animals, and in particular without camels to carry their tents and
household belongings, the Kuchi said they could not make the journey on
foot as they used to. "The people here are those who do not have herds,"
said Gul Jan, the elder who is the leader of the group. "Ninety percent do
not have any livestock at all. That's why we are working here, to pay for
the journey home." Losing their herds has not just changed their pattern
of movement, Ms. de Weijer said, it has also endangered their very

The Kuchi have always lived by selling their young animals, dairy
products, wool and sheepskins, or by bartering those goods for grain and
other food. Movement to summer grazing lands is a necessity to keep the
animals alive. A family of 12 to 20 people needs at least 100 sheep and
goats to survive, the Kuchi say. In Paghman, a district on the
southwestern rim of the capital, another group of Kuchi live in 13 tents
on a scrubby hillside. A mile farther on, there are another 25 tents. The
children are dusty and run barefoot among the tents, which are covered
with pieces of colored fabric and look like patchwork quilts.

These people are from the Khomari Khel tribe, a group of 500 families that
traditionally move every year from Laghman Province, in eastern
Afghanistan, to spend the summer up in the central highlands of the Hindu
Kush, known as Hazarajat, an area mostly populated by ethnic Hazaras. But
in the last 20 years they have made the trip only a few times, the elders
of the tribe said. This year they sat out the summer on the hot and dusty
plains here near Kabul. Their trouble began more than 20 years ago with
the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when Russian bombing raids and
minefields killed many of their tribe, said Malik Gulbat, an elder. The
almost continuous fighting since then has blocked their migratory routes,
and the tensions from later factional fighting and the Taliban era still
prevent their return to Hazarajat.

Then the drought of the last four years, the most severe in living memory,
delivered the heaviest blow, depleting the Kuchi's herds to such an extent
that many can no longer feed their families. "Some of them were killed in
the fighting and bombardments, some died from the drought; there was no
grass and we sold some of them for meat," Mr Gulbat said of the 150 sheep
and goats he once had. He said that two of his sons were killed by mines
as they tended their herds near Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, once a
major Russian base and now the headquarters for the American military.

He remembered his childhood with nostalgia. "The economy was good; our
father and grandfather had good livestock; we were happy," he said. "The
best thing was that there was no fighting then, no stealing, no armed
robbery. We would move everywhere. We were safe. Now we have the worst
life." The last few years have been so hard that many Kuchi say they now
want to give up the nomadic way of life, and they are asking the
government for land so they can become farmers. "We are tired of this, we
have no way to make ends meet," said Chaman Gul, 65. "If we had the chance
we would stop living like this."

Some want help to restock their herds, but they have little faith the
government will help. "No one has come from the government to talk to us,"
Mr. Gul said. "No one cares about the poor people except God." People who
raise livestock, like the Kuchi, are a necessary part of the rural system
and their livelihood in normal circumstances is sustainable, Ms. de Weijer
said. Other Kuchi say they would prefer to keep their way of life if they
can.  "It's a good life moving we don't get tired," said Pas Bibi, 50, a
mother of eight, as she sat with a group on the ground in front of her
tent. The women around her agreed.

The men added that they needed schools and veterinary and medical clinics
that could move with the tribe for the migration. Twenty years ago there
were boarding schools in Kabul for Kuchi children, but those were closed
during the Soviet period and since then none of the children have been
educated, they said. The Kuchi need, above all, political representation
in the government, Ms.  de Weijer said. "They are not one entity, so there
is not one solution," she said, "but there is a humanitarian need and a
need to rebuild their livelihood."

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