Afghanistan: Land triggers new conflicts By Rebecca Murray
NANGARHAR, Afghanistan - A small plot of urban land has pitted Assadullah, 55,
against an unwelcome neighbor in a bitter personal property dispute that has
stretched on for almost a decade.
Assadullah's story is a common one. A working-class barber who fled Jalalabad,
in Nangarhar province, to Pakistan during the Soviet war in the mid-1980s, he
returned after the Taliban regime fell in 2001. There he found a strange
businessman in a new house built on the 450-square meter tract that Assadullah
purchased from the government before he left.
Moving his family into an old dwelling along the edge of the plot, Assadullah
showed the newcomer his official land deed and receipt as proof the land was
his. He says the man, flush with
cash from a timber business, was friends with powerful politicians and in turn
produced a "fake" customary deed.
Since then the neighbors have been locked in an acrimonious battle for
ownership of the residential land, which has soared in value over the years.
The men only see each other now in court.
After two failed attempts to solve the case through a Jirga - a traditional
community decision-making body - Assadullah filed his claim in a government
court. He won the case, but the court of appeals overturned the ruling.
Assadullah's case now lies in the Supreme Court awaiting a final verdict. "I am
not sure if the court decision will take place soon," he says. "I don't believe
the government; the system is complicated and the courts are corrupt."
Nangarhar is the agricultural breadbasket of Afghanistan's east. Its rich
natural resources and major transportation route connecting Kabul to Pakistan
attracts returning Afghan refugees and migrants from the more volatile
surrounding provinces, as well as nomadic tribes for grazing grounds.
This huge population influx has transformed the majority Pashtun province into
one of the most crowded corners of the country and hiked up the value of the
Almost 90% of Afghanistan's mostly rural and agricultural land belongs to the
government. Land allocations are classified and documented under a 2008 land
law, and managed by the Afghanistan Land Authority (Arazi).
Since the US-led invasion in 2001, the threat of violence over land disputes
has increased dramatically. Land grabbing by corrupt government officials and
warlords is endemic throughout the country, and absentee land is often resold
or occupied, without the original owner's knowledge.
In Kabul, makeshift dwellings snake up the sides of mountains, while power
brokers grab prime central real estate for themselves. Last summer, Ghulam
Haider Hamidi, mayor of Kandahar City, was assassinated in supposed retaliation
for tearing down illegal structures built on government land.
"It is part of our culture that people kill each other over two issues,"
explains Dr Rafiullah Bidar, the Jalalabad program manager for the governmental
Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC). "One is for land, and
the second is women."
"Big issues like tribes fighting the government over land is what we have
problems with because there are a lot of politics involved, and if we share it
with a minister, maybe that minister is involved," Bidar says. "The price of
land is getting very high, and there is a lot of corruption."
Land disputes are most commonly fought between individuals, including family
inheritance claims. Others pit the government against individuals or tribes, or
tribes versus tribes.
The majority of landowners prefer to abide by customary law and resolve
disputes using traditional mechanisms because it takes less time. The courts
are regarded as time consuming - always an expensive undertaking for those
involved - and are suspected of corruption.
The Liaison Office, an Afghan non-governmental organization that has researched
land disputes, says roughly 30% of land ownership deeds are registered in the
east, and although 85% are registered in the south, the documentation is out of
On a warm morning, local legal advisors for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)
in Nangarhar travelled to the fertile northern district of Kus Kunar, bordering
volatile Kunar province. They are consulting on the formation of a Jirga that
will decide a female inheritance case.
Ten men sip tea in a circle inside a small, carpeted room. Outside is a small
plot of land with livestock and bundles of hay enclosed by a high mud compound
wall. The property owner's father had died, leaving his three sons portions of
land, but not the daughters. By law, one son gets twice a share as two
daughters. The Jirga was called by a middle-aged daughter deciding to fight for
her inheritance claim.
Town representatives, called Maliks, approved by the district judge and the
Jirga, listen to all sides and then make a decision. The customary outcome will
be drawn up in a document, fingerprinted, and submitted to the local court.
Chief Justice Arhamullah Nafi, in the dingy district court nearby, says they
solve land disputes by both Jirga and in the court. "We face a lot of
problems," he says. "We have no transportation or electricity. Security is the
main problem. The police are here, but they say they don't belong to us."
The most controversial and violent land dispute in Nangarhar this year has been
between two Shinwari sub-tribes in the southern Achin district, and is
illustrative how interwoven land disputes are with Afghanistan's complex
politics and violence.
The Sepai and Alisherkhel sub-tribes are fighting over a 15 square-kilometer
strip of desert land. Although worthless as agricultural land, the influx of
migrants and increasing population makes it ideal for construction.
Two years ago the Sepai were armed by the US as part of a local policing
program to maintain stability. These weapons have since been used in violent
clashes against the Alisherkhel instead, who complained US forces and the
Afghan government had taken sides in the dispute.
After a realignment of coalition and government support for the Alisherkhel,
and three high profile Jirgas to resolve the dispute, the Sepai mounted an
attack on Nangarhar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai in October. Coalition forces
retaliated by bombing the Sepai which resulted in multiple casualties.
"I am concerned with people fighting with each other using weapons in land
disputes," says the AIHRC's Dr Bitar. "But there is no clear process which
deters people not to use weapons."