Kuchi means ‘nomad’ in the Dari (Persian) language. Kuchis are Pashtuns from southern and eastern Afghanistan. They are a social rather than ethnic grouping, although they also have some of the characteristics of a distinct ethnic group. Though traditionally nomadic, many have been settled in northwestern Afghanistan, in an area that was traditionally occupied by Uzbeks and Tajiks, after strong encouragement by the Taliban government. Nowadays only a few thousands still follow their traditional livelihood of nomadic herding. Others have become farmers, settled in cities or emigrated. The largest population of Kuchis is probably in Registan, the desert in southern Afghanistan.
Tribes are formed among the Kuchis along patrilineal lines. A clan is composed of a core family, their offspring and their families. The leader of the tribe, the Khan, is responsible for the general well-being of the community, for governing the group and for representing it to visitors. Tribes live communally, and on becoming too large separate in order to facilitate more efficient management. Typically, there are three types of Kuchis: pure nomads, semi-sedentary and nomadic traders. The majority are semi-sedentary, living in the same winter area year after year. The purely nomadic Kuchis have no fixed abode and are dependent on animals for their livelihood; their movements are determined by the weather and the availability of good pasturage. Traders constitute the smallest percentage of Kuchis; their main activity being the transport of goods. The semi-pastoral Kuchis are gradually tending towards a more sedentary way of life. The majority do so because they can no longer support themselves from their livestock.
The Kuchis constitute an important part of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. For centuries, they have migrated across the country in a search of seasonal pastures and milder weather. They were the main traders in Afghanistan, connecting South Asia with the Middle East. The livestock owned by the Kuchis made an important contribution in the national economy. They owned about 30 per cent of all the sheep and goats and most of the camels. Traditionally they exchanged tea, sugar, matches etc. for wheat and vegetables with settled communities. They also acted as moneylenders and offered services in transportation along with additional labour at harvest time. Kuchis have been greatly affected by conflict, drought and demographic shifts. Therefore, it is only a small number of Kuchis who still follow their traditional livelihood of nomadic herding. Despite their history and their traditional resources, the chronic state of instability in Afghanistan has left them among the poorest groups in the country.
With the development of the road system in Afghanistan in the 1950s and 1960s and the formation of road transportation companies with fleets of trucks, the traditional Kuchi camel caravan gradually became obsolete, greatly impacting the income and lifestyle of the community. The situation for the Kuchis became even more tenuous during the prolonged periods of armed conflict and during the droughts of 1971-1972 and 1998-2002. These droughts are estimated to have caused the deaths of 75 per cent of Kuchi livestock. Furthermore, the combination of the intensive bombing campaigns by the US-led coalition as well as the spread of landmines during the 23 years of conflict decimated Kuchi herds, taking away their major source of income. Fighting and control by different warlords also often blocked their migratory routes.
The relation between settled communities and Kuchis has historically been peaceful and based on exchanges of goods and services. Real tensions commenced when the Kuchis started settling on the land since their nomadic lifestyle was being disrupted. During the Taliban regime, Kuchi nomads (being of Pashtun origin) were encouraged to settle on lands that were already occupied by other ethnic groups. The lack of overall policy regarding land tenure and pasture rights by the authorities created prolonged disputes over the land and resources between settled Afghans and Kuchis. The traditional system of pasture rights seems to have been eroded and replaced by the power of the gun. Thus, although many Kuchis still hold documents indicating their rights to use pastures and parcels of land (some of which date back a century or more) their current value is undermined and their land rights not recognized by the government when handling disputes.
In recent years there have been increasing tensions between Kuchis and Hazaras over access to land, with periodic clashes between the two groups in central Wardak and Bamyan provinces. In 2008, Hazara communities went out into the streets, threatening to take up arms against Kuchis if they entered either of the provinces.
Clashes also took place in 2010 in western Kabul, when Kuchi refugees attempting to resettle on their ancestral lands clashed with local Hazara residents. The fighting continued for several days and led to casualties among both communities. The government sought to resolve this dispute by resettling the Kuchi community in the ruins of the Darul Aman palace in Kabul, where they were forced to live in destitution for months. Further clashes with other ethnic groups, especially Hazaras, as well as the authorities have occurred in the years since then. The Kuchis’ situation will remain precarious until the government develops adequate solutions, both short and long-term, for Kuchis lacking access to land.
The relation between settled people and Kuchis has historically been peaceful and based on exchanges of goods and services. The tensions began to escalate when Kuchis started settling on the land, as their nomadic lifestyle became increasingly disrupted. During the Taliban regime, Kuchi nomads (being of Pashtun origin) were encouraged to settle on land that was already occupied by other ethnic groups. The lack of an overall official policy regarding land tenure and pasture rights created prolonged disputes over lands and natural resources between settled Afghans and Kuchi communities. The traditional system of pasture rights seems to have been eroded and replaced by the power of the gun. Thus, although many Kuchis still hold documents indicating their rights to use pastures and parcels of land (some of which date back more than a century) their current value is undetermined.
Depending on the region, Kuchis make up a large proportion of internally displaced people (IDPs). For instance, according to one UNHCR report in 2008, they made up 60 per cent of IDPs in two regions in the Punjway and Maywand districts of Qandahar in southern Afghanistan. With 90 per cent of their livestock lost and water remaining scarce, the report questioned whether the return was at all feasible or sustainable. Thus, the real challenge is the creation of livelihood opportunities in Kuchi areas of origin, complemented by projects aiming for longer-term reintegration. This reintegration needs to take into account the fact that Kuchis are generally facing a higher degree of nutritional and food security risks than others – due to the impact of both conflict and drought. In addition, any support to Kuchi returnees must also involve and support local settled communities in order to avoid tensions and conflict in the future.
Life for Kuchis is difficult, especially for Kuchi women. Male and female roles, as in other segments of traditional Afghan society, are rigidly adhered to, with the men tending livestock while the women hold the major responsibility for child-rearing, and are completely responsible for food and water preparation and for sewing and weaving clothes and tents.
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Kuchis have been discriminated against on the basis of their perceived alignment with the Taliban. Many ended up in rudimentary IDP camps near Herat or Kandahar or isolated in refugee camps in Pakistan. Kuchis who have livestock are often unable to drive their flocks to their traditional summer grazing pastures in the central highlands. Very little of the foreign assistance extended to Afghanistan by the international community has aided the Kuchis. Few assistance agencies work in the insecure areas in which they are located, and most donors emphasize short-term economic and humanitarian aid rather than the longer-term assistance the Kuchis need to rebuild their herds and gain access to essential services and reintegration programmes for those who have been displaced. As a result, most Kuchis today remain jobless and illiterate.
Although due to their nomadic lifestyle Kuchis were never really involved in the politics of the country, they have played a key role in Afghanistan’s post-Taliban political revival. Kuchis gained their own constituency and were allocated 10 seats of the 249 seats, seven for men and three for women, in the National Assembly of 2005. These and other positions filled by Kuchis, however, tend to be dominated by settled Kuchi people – those who are no longer engaging in nomadic lifestyles. Recently and informally settled or semi-nomadic Kuchis are largely neglected. They report being forcibly settled by the government, having no means to sustain their livelihoods in permanent settlements, and denied access to health and education. Most lack birth certificates or identity papers, which are required to access these services. Many Kuchis reportedly live in informal settlements on the outskirts of Kabul.
At the same time, Kuchis who have more recently adopted a sedentary lifestyle on the periphery of major cities have similarly faced discrimination. Urban Kuchis have typically lacked access to ‘serviced’ areas of the city and have instead lived on the outskirts, often occupying infertile land or, as has been the case near Qandahar, residing long-term in IDP camps. Such marginal and precarious living conditions have not only disadvantaged those living in such settlements but have also fuelled increasingly widespread negative perceptions of Kuchis, further undermining their social status within Afghanistan.
An Independent Commission of Kuchi Affairs (IDKA) was created under the Presidential Office in 2006 to help realise the rights of the Kuchi community, and particularly to serve as an interface for state relations with nomadic Kuchis. Unfortunately, disputes within the commission have reportedly slowed any significant progress.
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