Afghanistan: Minorities make themselves heard

Report
from Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Published on 17 Jun 2002
The country's smaller ethnic communities are keen to have their say at the grand assembly.
By Samander Khan in Kabul. (ARR No 14, 17-Jun-02)

While Afghanistan's many groups have spent much of the last week publiclytalking about national unity, and privately worrying about national disunity, the focus has mainly been on the two largest ethnic groups: the Pashtun and the Tajiks.

But represented alongside them in the Loya Jirga are the country's smaller communities: Uzbeks, Hezara, Turkomen, Kirghiz, Nuristanis, Ismaeelis and even Sikhs and Hindus. All of them are hoping for a better deal from Hamid Karzai's administration than the Taleban, who branded anyone who did not conform to their own strict interpretation of Islam as infidels.

"This is the first time our representatives have come to a Loya Jirga," said Tordi Akhund, from the Kighiz minority in the Wakkan corridor in the province of Badakhshan, a mountainous area with little or no agriculture. "No one has even come to discover our problems. There is no road for vehicles. Even horses and donkeys find it difficult going."

He said the area used to have about 5,500 Kirghiz families. When the war with the Soviet Union broke out, 300 of them moved to Pakistan and were then granted asylum in Turkey, where they remain. The Kirghiz speak a Turkic language.

A generation of war has changed the perception of some of Afghanistan's minorities. Uzbeks, found mainly in the north and Hazara, predominantly in the centre of the country, were traditionally considered minorities that needed central government protection.

But both groups are now politicised and armed as a result of the fighting. Uzbeks are active under General Abdel Rashid Dostum and his Junbesh-e-Islami party, while Hazaras have asserted themselves in the Hezb-e-Wahdat of Karim Khalili and the Haraket-e-Inqilabi of Ayatollah Asif Mohsini.

Afghanistan's population is extremely uncertain because of the war and the jostling for power between the different groups.

According to the Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan, published in 1998, the total population, excluding nomads, was 15.1 million, of which the Pashtuns constituted seven million, Tajiks about 3.5 million, Hazara 1.5 million, Uzbeks 1.3 million, Aimaq 800,000, Turkmen 600,000, Baluch about 300,000 and Nuristanis about 100,000.

In addition, estimates for Kuchi nomads, who are ethnically Pashtun in the main, vary between 600,000 and three million.

All group numbers are probably higher than that now, and most claim a larger proportion of the total as well.

Hashmat Ghani, leader of the Kuchis, told IWPR that his community numbered six million. "We were given 27 seats in the Loya Jirga, which was not enough. We have lost our traditional grazing lands in Hazarajat over the past 23 years of wars - and they should be given back or exchanged for other lands," he said.

Ghani said the nomads wanted state facilities such as schools and hospitals in both their summer and winter grazing grounds.

Sayed Ismail, leader of an Ismaeeli group in Badakhshan, said his group used to have place of worship in Kabul in the time of Daud Khan in the 1970s. But the mujahadin and then the Taleban repressed their religious activities. The community considers itself Muslim but co-religionists often regard them as apostates.

Even the country's tiny Hindu and Sikh communities are represented at the Loya Jirga, selected as part of an allocation of seats to minorities of all kinds. "We demand that we should be known as Afghans," said Ganga Ram. "During mujahedin and Taleban rule we were made to leave the country and our homes and shops were taken over. "

Preet Singh, one of four representatives from the Sikh minority, said, "We should be given chance in all state affairs and services. Even before Islam we lived here."

Samander Khan is an IWPR jounalist trainee.