(10-21) 04:00 PST Behsud, Afghanistan — Some liken it to two brothers fighting over table scraps. Others believe the problem run much deeper, cutting along ethnic and sectarian lines - similar to disputes in other parts of the world between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Regardless, recent clashes between nomadic Pashtun and Hazara tribes in central Afghanistan have killed more than a dozen Hazaras, hundreds of livestock and ruined crops just before the long winter months. The conflict is over the Hazara attempt to reclaim rights to their ancestral lands used by nomads for grazing and watering their livestock.
Between June and July, Mohammed Ali, the deputy police commander of this central city, estimates that 7,000 residents in villages throughout central Afghanistan were displaced while more than 1,000 homes have been destroyed. His numbers could not be verified.
The clashes also caused 10,000 Hazaras to protest in Kabul this summer, shutting down some of the city’s main streets. President Hamid Karzai later ordered the nomads to evacuate the contentious area - an indication of the growing political power of the minority Hazara, who comprise about 9 percent of Afghanistan’s 33 million inhabitants.
"Our way of life may be coming to an end," said Malik Khan, a nomadic Pashtun leader. "We may have to stay in one place from now on."
The Hazara, who have suffered years of abuse and discrimination in Afghanistan, are testing the strength of their newfound political clout under Karzai, who named Karim Khalili, a Hazara as second vice president. The Hazara argue that grazing damages their crops and lowers the water supply in a region that is already in short supply.
"We are victims," said Najeeb, a Hazara, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
If nothing else, this may simply be a story about ancient lifestyles clashing with a fledgling democratic government grappling to establish order, distribute land and develop infrastructure, some observers say.
Nomadic clans - typically Pashtun Sunnis - have migrated from winter havens in the lowlands of eastern Afghanistan to graze herds in the verdant valleys of the central highlands every summer since a royal decree afforded them such land rights 120 years ago. According to Refugees International, the number of nomads in Afghanistan has dropped from 2 million to tens of thousands in the past 30 years.
The Hazara, who are of Mongolian descent and are mostly Shiite Muslims, have cultivated the fields of central Afghanistan for centuries. At the same time, they have often endured brutality, exploitation and neglect at the hands of the majority Pashtuns. More recently, massacres of Hazaras during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 through most of 2001 forged a deep distrust toward Pashtuns, who account for about 42 percent of the population.
"Some of these people are with the Taliban and al Qaeda," said Muhammad Yousef, a Hazara resident of the central city of Behsud, who recently returned home after fighting Pashtun nomads over gazing on his land.
But for their part, many nomads view Hazara farmers as the aggressors.
"They were armed when we arrived," said Gulbaad, a nomad who uses only one name. "We were forced to turn back."
For their part, politicians and many tribal elders argue that precious resources are at the center of the dispute.
Like brothers fighting
"This is an economic problem first and foremost," said Bashardost Ramazan, an Afghan parliamentarian, who is running as an independent candidate in next year’s presidential elections, referring to shortfalls of land and water. "This is like two brothers fighting for the last piece of bread at the table. We need to build dams and irrigate the desert areas to provide more land for growing and clean water."
Safir Mohammed, who leads the council of Hazara elders in Behsud, acknowledges Pashtun nomads traditionally have grazed livestock on lands without incident for years, but now complains of them ravaging fields and water supplies.
"They’re welcome to take their herds to other parts of the district but not where our homes and fields are," Mohammed said. "They must go to other parts of the province because there’s not enough room for them here."
Mahmood Khan Sulemankhel, director of Afghanistan’s nomadic council, said his people are simply seeking to continue the only way of life they have ever known.
"The nomads are impartial - we don’t have a political or military agenda," Sulemankhel said. "We just want the freedom to live our own lives in the mountains and deserts."
The brown, stony plain at the base of the Arghandawi Mountains 20 miles south of Kabul along a ribbon of narrow highway appears to be a hostile environment for humans and animals. The land is sparsely vegetated and no water is in sight, but 300 nomadic families in Malik Khan’s tribe have pitched their tents. Khan moved his group there after they were driven from their traditional summer grazing territory in Behsud by Hazara landowners.
Khan, a tribal elder, says the 300 families have lost an estimated 3,000 cows, sheep and goats to starvation and dehydration. The men and boys walk at least 3 miles just to find scraps of meager pasture. The women and girls walk two hours to the nearest spring to fetch water.
No way out
"We have no other remedy but to remain here," said the nomad Gulbaad as he flogged his herd of sheep with a reed across the arid landscape.
On the other side of the conflict, Najeeb, the Hazara farmer, said he lost most of his worldly possessions, including his home, livestock and his family’s wheat and potato crops. He said Pashtun nomads looted and burned his home.
"We didn’t even have time to gather our clothes or mattresses - we just got away with our lives," said Najeeb, whose employer allows him to live in a minibus in the city of Bamiyan while his family stays with relatives. "The government tells us to go back, but what are we supposed to go back to? We’ve lost everything."
E-mail James Palmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.