Afghanistan’s ‘Royal’ Outcasts


‘The Hazaras burned down our houses and drove us off our land. Now we have nowhere to go,’ says Khan Shabuz. His words seem to resonate with those who have huddled around him, heads bowed as they stand surrounded by barbed wire. ‘They’ve also stolen all our cattle. We are nomads, how are we supposed to carry on now?’

According to official figures, there could be as many as three million Kuchi nomads living in Afghanistan, making them about ten percent of the country’s total population. Yet despite sharing a common language with the Pashtuns (the country’s largest ethnic group) these migrants are often treated like lepers in a land they’ve been criss-crossing with their flocks for centuries.

The reality is that while for generations they played a key role in trade between Central Asia and the Middle East, today they’re easy prey for warlords and regular armed Afghans who have gradually taken over land that’s in many cases supposedly guaranteed them by the Constitution.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The 700 Kuchis who have been relocated amid the ruins of Darul Aman, the palace of Afghan King Amanullah that was built on the outskirts of Kabul in the 1920's (and which Russians and mujaideen heavily damaged during the course of the 1970s, 80s and 90s), are a handful of the many Kuchi that have been displaced.

In a courtyard opposite the war-scarred remains of the neoclassical facade of the palace, four men toil away building latrines for the displaced. At this spot yesterday were three decorative fountains. Tomorrow, 250 displaced families from a nearby village will have a place to urinate, behind a stall made of black canvass.

‘We used to live in Kala-e Gazi, just behind that mountain,’ says Rahman, pointing west. ‘For more than 300 years, that was where we’d rest after spending months on the move with our livestock.’

Government sources say that the nomads have been relocated to Darul Aman until an ongoing investigation clarifies what really happened in Kala-e Gazi. But there’s a growing sense of frustration among the nomads over whether anything will ever come of this.

‘We know who they are. But instead of arresting them, the government just dumps us in this horrible wasteland,’ says Zanaullah.

Wasteland might not be a bad way to describe the area. It’s not only the usual lack of water and electricity or the poor sanitation. There’s also the familiar Afghan problem of unexploded ordinance, with the letters UXO painted on the arches of the palace acting as a chilling reminder of their presence nearby. Unexploded Russian shells might have been removed long ago, but the threat of landmines persists.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief