Qarabagh, Afghanistan - As snow falls over the northern Kabul hillsides, a group of nomadic kochis in Afghanistan congregate at their simple, white mosque. The leaders of this 750-household community, known as maleks, enter first, followed by the other men of the group.
Inside the mosque, the elders share the story of a land dispute that has for two years pitted them against the Afghan government and a local tribesman who claims to own the land they have settled on.
For centuries, Afghanistan's kochi population - numbering about three million - was on the move, following the seasons with their livestock in tow. But about two million of these people, who are mostly ethnic Pashtuns, have been pressured by three decades of conflict to abandon their nomadic lifestyle to instead search for permanent residence.
Some have been able to use the profits from selling their livestock to buy homes. But, with 54 percent of the nation's kochis living in poverty, many others have chosen to settle in open areas where they have built their own houses, without the required permission from the Ministry of Urban Development Affairs and Housing.
The hillsides have a historic pull for the kochis living in the Qarabagh district north of the capital. For 200 years, their nomadic routes have afforded them a connection to the land here.
"From the time I came to this Earth we have been [coming] here," says Malek Islam, one of the four leaders of the community.
As youngsters pass around loaves of bread and cups of chai, a tale unfolds of an Afghanistan in which tradition and modernity sit uncomfortably side-by-side, where nomadic camps and contemporary high-rise apartment blocks compete for space.
The ageing maleks may recall setting up camp in Qarabagh as young boys on their way to the highlands, but the government in Kabul sees them as squatters on land belonging to somebody else.
According to records in Kabul province's principal book of properties, the land the kochis currently occupy belongs to a man who inherited it from his family, and who has since relocated to France.
But the maleks insist that the man, who could not be reached for comment by Al Jazeera, has never produced a deed to the land they settled on two years ago. "Ever since we asked for documentation, he fled. He has not been heard from since," they insist. Haji Ghondai, one of the leaders of the community, says that was more than a year ago.
Lined with graves
|In the winter of 2011-12, 15 Kochi children died from the cold in Qarabagh [Ali Latifi/Al Jazeera]
Meanwhile, the community's four maleks insist that as "people of the Afghan nation", their demands for a school, a clinic and a source of water must be addressed by the government.
But, despite having 10 of the 249 seats in the lower house of the Afghan parliament allocated to them and a special independent directorate to deal with their issues, many kochis feel that their voices remain unheard by the government.
The maleks of Qarabagh say that the kochis are "servants of God and citizens of this president", but that the government was placing financial interests ahead of its people. "We gave martyrs. We fought alongside our brothers for 35 years, but people won't even allow us in the fields," says Malek Islam, noting that the hillsides here were lined with kochi graves.
Kabul judge Jamaluddin Wahedi says that, without documentation, the kochis are unlikely to have even their most basic demands met: "Everything in this country is in the documents. If you have the proper papers, then the law is in your favour."
But Malek Islam says that, when they do try to deal with government officials, they are discriminated against for their traditional ways: "They look at our patos [shawls], our traditional piran tombans [long robes] and say we are bombers. Our men, our women cast ballots for them, but still the government pays us no attention."
Turned away from government buildings and despondent at what they believe is government indifference towards them, the kochis of Qarabagh took matters into their own hands when they erected their mosque in 2011. But officials said this violated a bylaw stating that no structures capable of standing for more than six months could be built on disputed land.
The maleks say that the morning after they built the mosque, the police surrounded them: "They fired 2,000 bullets on our women and children. What did we do? Did we commit a sin by building a house of God in a single night?”
Educating for self-sufficiency
The kochis' commitment to building a self-sufficient existence is, they insist, reflected in their determination to educate the children of the community.
Each day more than 450 boys and girls take turns attending classes in a tent provided by the Aschiana Foundation, a local NGO serving disadvantaged children. With books, pencils, heaters and firewood provided by Aschiana, Maulvi Ahmad Khan, who serves as the community's mullah and schoolteacher, proudly proclaims: "All our children are literate."
But even the school tents are a reminder of the predicament in which the community finds itself, for, in accordance with Afghan law, they must be taken down within the next few months.
"We asked the government to help our children so our country can move forward," says Malek Islam. "For how long can we be dependent? For how long can we be illiterate?"
The women of Qarabagh are essential to the livelihoods of the community. In the hillsides, their primary daily responsibility is water retrieval. But the maleks say the hills that surround them make even that an hours-long task each day. In the winter, the women resort to heating snow for drinking water.
"What kind of life is this for our women?" asks Haji Ghondai.
But nothing has served as a more stinging reminder of the kochis' lack of agency than the winter of 2011-12. With the nearest medical facility 40 minutes and a $10 taxi ride away, 15 of the community's children died as a result of the cold during that particularly harsh winter, further emphasising the need for permanent structures and a health clinic.
In bureaucracy, rights are easily lost [but] in the Afghan jirga tradition, rights are never lost.
Bureaucracy versus tradition
The kochis used to spend early autumn in Laghman province to the east, but they say even their land there has been taken over by developers, both foreign and local. "Who are [they] building these high-rises for, the Westerners?" Malek Islam asks.
"If an Afghan is not part of Afghanistan then give us our passports to go to Pakistan or Iran," says Haji Ghondai.
But after more than 30 years of war, land disputes are not unique to Afghanistan's kochi populations. In fact, they occur in nearly all of the nation's 34 provinces.
Asadullah Hamdam, the former governor of south-central Uruzgan province, says the solutions to these disputes are to be found in tents, not the halls of power. Shortly after assuming his post in 2007, Hamdam was confronted by a land dispute between two local groups over 5,000 acres in Chora district that led to the killing of 65 people.
At a 2008 loya jirga - a meeting of tribal elders, religious leaders and other "knowledgeable people" - 200 representatives were tasked with resolving the dispute. After three days of meetings with villagers, the jirga was able to bring both parties to an agreement.
Pointing to the rampant corruption in the Central Asian nation, Hamdam says: "In bureaucracy, rights are easily lost [but] in the Afghan jirga tradition, rights are never lost."
Gathered in their mosque, the maleks say a prayer and one by one the community steps out into the cold air. "Other than God we have no connections," says Malek Islam, as he watches a group of girls leave the tents that serve as their classroom to make way for the first shift of boys.
With the "illegal" mosque he helped build behind him and a crowd of schoolchildren before him, Malek Islam argues that it is tradition that has kept his people in Qarabagh. "We have no more places to go. This is where we want to stay."
Follow Ali Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye