Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

AFGHANISTAN: Land Triggers New Conflicts

Land has become a major source of disputes in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan. Credit: Rebecca Murray/IPS

NANGARHAR, Afghanistan , Dec 4 2011 (IPS) - A small plot of urban land has pitted Assadullah, 55, against an unwelcome neighbour 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-eighties, he returned after the Taliban regime fell in 2001. There he found a strange businessman in a new house built on the 450-square metre 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 neighbours 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 for 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 land.

Almost 90 percent 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 U.S.-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 programme 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 NGO that has researched land disputes, says roughly 30 percent of land ownership deeds are registered in the east, and although 85 percent are registered in the south, the documentation is out of date.

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-kilometre 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 U.S. as part of a local policing programme to maintain stability. These weapons have since been used in violent clashes against the Alisherkhel instead, who complained U.S. 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.”

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