- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan — One man lives penniless in a field under a patchwork tent with baying dogs roaming outside. Another, wearing a suit and black tie, glides past his silver Mercedes as he welcomes guests into his plush Kabul villa.

Both are Kuchis, which means nomads in the Pashtu language, yet they have little in common except their shared heritage and the view that the life of Afghanistan’s wandering people is fading.

Few of the itinerant tribesmen have settled down and prospered. For the majority, life has been pushed to the brink by poverty, war, shrinking access to land, ethnic tensions and leftover land mines.

“We are the last of the true Kuchis, but because of the hardships we are fed up with this life,” said Fugal Khan, 50, a Kuchi who has hit the road with his family and five others, heading for higher country to escape the summer heat.

Officials estimate there are about 3 million Kuchis among the 25 million or so Afghans, with about 60 percent of them still following the nomadic life. They are among the poorest of the battered country’s residents, owning little more than a tent and a few sheep and cows.

For more than 3,000 years, Kuchis were Afghanistan’s pre-eminent transporters and traders, serving as a mobile bridge between South Asia and the Middle East. But now Kuchis such as Mr. Khan, who arrived this spring in Kabul’s outskirts after walking 60 miles from easter Laghman province, are a largely forgotten people, neglected by the government.

Armed villagers and warlords often chase them off the land guaranteed to them under the new constitution. Hospitals refuse their sick, and graveyards reject their dead. They earn money by selling milk from their animals, but many also make their children work or beg. Even if they wanted to settle down, most couldn’t afford to buy or rent a house.

Yet not all Kuchis share the same lot.

Some have bought property and use it as a base to return to after several months of travel. And there is a smaller, more affluent group that settled down long ago, leaving the roaming lifestyle behind.

Hashmat Ghani Ahmadzai, chief of the Grand Council of Kuchis, is among the wealthiest and most influential Kuchis, thanks to a large family inheritance based on land ownership as well as a successful transport company. He is also vice president of an American security and reconstruction company.

As chief of the Kuchi council, which represents the interests of largely settled Kuchi tribes, Mr. Ahmadzai deals with important Afghan politicians, including President Hamid Karzai. But he says ideas he has put forward to improve life for the poorest nomads, such as providing community centers and integrating them into settled societies, aren’t being taken up.

“Nomadic life is coming to an end. Ninety-eight percent of the Kuchi lifestyle has changed,” Mr. Ahmadzai said in his luxurious Kabul home filled with deep red Afghan rugs and dark brown lacquered tables. “The grazing land is not there, transportation and trade has changed so much. Kuchis are not needed.”

Kuchis played a key role in Afghanistan’s post-Taliban political revival, throwing their support behind Mr. Karzai in the 2005 presidential elections.

Naim Kuchi, the most influential figure among the nomads, was detained by U.S. forces in early 2003 for being a Taliban commander, then freed in late 2004. Mr. Karzai feted him on his return, a gesture many Afghans think was aimed at courting Kuchi support at the ballot box.

Ten of the 249 seats in Afghanistan’s parliament have been allotted to Kuchis, but many are filled by people who are not nomads because few of the latter stepped forward to compete in the elections.

Kuchis were also promised a government department to handle their affairs, but it never materialized.

Shahbaz Ahmadzai, a prominent tribal leader hand-picked by Mr. Karzai to advise him on Kuchi and tribal affairs, accuses the government of doing nothing to help nomads.

“Kuchis have the hardest life of all Afghans. These people have no possibilities even after giving their vote to President Karzai,” he said. “If my advice keeps being ignored and I continue to be disappointed, I will resign.”

Nomadic life on Afghanistan’s high plains has become more dangerous amid the proliferation of weapons and scattering of land mines, particularly during the mujahedeen uprising against the 1979-89 Soviet occupation and the ensuing four-year war to topple a communist government.

“Before the revolution, we Kuchis had a very good life and were free to use huge areas of desert,” said nomad Alim Jan, 45.

“But things changed with the war between the communists and the mujahedeen. Everyone took up guns and nobody now listens to the government. Now when we enter the desert, men approach us with guns and say: ‘Go away, Kuchis.’”

AP writers Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.

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