Afghan Nomad Refugees in Pakistan


Since the Soviet army entered Afghanistan on December 27, 1979, approximately three million Afghans have crossed the border into Pakistan seeking safety and a livelihood. Among them are several groups of fully nomadic people, many others who have traditionally combined fettled agriculture with seasonal migration into the mountains with small herds, and pure agriculturalists. They have brought large numbers of animals, mainly sheep and goats, but also camels, horses, cows, buffalo, and donkeys with them. These people's lives have been utterly disrupted by the fighting in Afghanistan and their migration has placed great ecological, social and political demands on the limited resources of Pakistan. Already severely depleted, Pakistan's forests are being trimmed and cut at a great rate to provide cooking and heating fuel, and sometimes building material. Unprotected replantings are often destroyed by grazing animals as well.

Grass is a very fragile, extremely valuable, and much under-appreciated resource. Extensive pasture is required to support many large herds. During summer months, in this hot, arid region, sufficient fodder is found only in the high mountains. Afghans traditionally relied upon the massive Hindu Kush range that runs through their country. In northern Pakistan where the Himalaya and Hindu Kush ranges terminate at the Indus River, pasturage is very limited by comparison. Local peoples and indigenous nomads - the Gujers - have grazed these ranges for centuries, mainly with small herds of cattle and horses, plus a few sheep and goats. Prior to the influx of refugees, range specialists expressed concern about the serious deterioration of the land and grass as a result of overgrazing. The addition of more animals - especially close-cropping sheep and goats whose agility permits them to traverse steep slopes and whose small hooves break up thin, high-altitude soil - has precipitated a little-recognized emergency. Pasture land is easily pushed beyond the point of regeneration. If the weeds that replace edible grasses are insufficient to hold the soil, the land, like that under former forests, is soon washed away, and may cause further damage by filling vitally important dams downstream.

The Government of Pakistan together with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and numerous international donor agencies have created a bureaucracy for dealing with the refugee situation. From a central office in Peshawar they have tried to maintain a census of Afghans; ensure proper distribution of tents, food rations, and health and other social services; and perform whatever policing has been thought necessary. The difficulties are great for they are dealing with a large, mobile population scattered over an extensive and generally inhospitable, mountainous region. A policy of providing a cash allowance of fifty rupees (about $4, not an inconsiderable sum) per individual per month for up to ten people in each family unit, in addition to distribution of goods and services on a per capita basis, has created a strong incentive for over-reporting numbers, while the strictly enforced practice of purdah (seclusion of women) precludes checking the reported population. As the number of refugees has grown, certain areas have been designated as camps to protect village and open lands and to facilitate distribution of goods and services. This frequently involves extensive projects such as the drilling of wells. However, many of these very independent people resent being relegated to one less-than-optimal location and leave in search of better opportunities or, during summer months, green pastures for their animals, further complicating the administrative task.

Among the refugees there are a variety of political organizations hoping to restore indigenous rule to their country. They compete with one another for membership and, even where much might be gained from cooperation, have difficulty working together. Some have reputedly formed alliances with political parties in Pakistan, themselves presently outlawed and possibly working against the current military regime of President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. Other duly registered refugees are suspected of being Soviet or Afghan-trained agents whose true purpose for being in Pakistan is expressly political and whose aim is destabilization of the country. In coping with this situation, the Government of Pakistan faces unique complications, for adjacent to Afghanistan is a strip of tribal territory over which it has quite limited jurisdiction (most decisions are taken by a council of tribal elders, the jirga, in accordance with tribal law). This is a legacy of the struggle of the British Raj to consolidate control over the area. The fact that most of the Afghan refugees, tribal area residents, and many of those in neighboring areas of the NWFP belong to the same ethnic group, the Pathans, and speak the same language, Pushto, engenders strong social ties among these groups. Many among the still-not-settled tribal people desire to retain complete freedom from exterior control, and have, over the past two decades, attempted to create an independent country encompassing lands on both sides of the border.

This is not the first instance of Afghans crossing the Pakistan border, which was set in the mountains at the eastern edge of the elevated Iranian plateau in 1893. For centuries the Indus and its major tributaries have served as the natural wintering ground for nomadic peoples not only from Afghanistan, but from as far east as Kashmir and parts of northern India. Four patterns of international migration between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been identified. The simplest of these involved individuals who entered Pakistan through the Khyber, Kurram, and Gomal Passes in search of seasonal employment during the winter. Second, the caravan trade has always been the means of communication and commerce throughout the region. Among the major routes was one connecting Peshawar and Kabul; twice each week a caravan would traverse the Khyber Pass en route between these cities. With the advent of a good road system, caravans switched from major intercity routes to local traffic in areas with few roads. Third, until occasionally interrupted in recent decades by international disputes that resulted in border closings, several groups of nomadic pastoralists regularly came through Peshawar and Kohat to winter on the trans-Indus plains and returned to Afghan territory during the summers. It is many of these people, among others, who now visit Kaghan Valley each year in search of pasture for their animals.

The remaining pattern of cross-border migration involves a multifacted economic adaptation in which trade and animal husbandry complement one another. A group called the Powindas (a term generally used for long-range nomadic traders by the British) visited Dera Ismail Khan on the Indus in winter and returned through Gomal Valley to Afghanistan each year. With them they would carry cotton clothing, tea, unrefined sugar, and assorted bazaar goods. Previously, the men would settle their families on the eastern plains of the country and then travel between the major cities to trade. After 1892 when Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, ruler of Afghanistan, broke the independence of the Hazaras, a people of Turko-Mongol descent residing in the eastern half of the Hindu Kush, they commenced yearly trading visits to the mountains with their families. From the peasants they would acquire wheat, clarified butter, and woven articles such as bags for transporting goods, woven rugs, and shawls. Wool for these was provided by the nomads through sale or in payment for help with shearing. They would trade those items not intended for their own use in the lowlands at great profit, before returning to the Indus with raisins, nuts, carpets, animals, and whatever else might be in demand.

Most significant, the traders introduced credit to the Hazaras, and most purchases were made on this basis. The nomads exchanged their goods for grain to be delivered the following summer. Should a villager be unable to fulfill his contract at the appointed time, he would be required to deliver two and a half to three and a half times the quantity the following year. If unable to redeem the debt, the nomads would take over his sheep, then his cows (which they would generally leave in the care of some family in the highlands in exchange for the milk produced during the winter), and eventually his land, on which he would be allowed to remain as a tenant in return for half or more of the yearly crop. An additional mechanism for providing credit to the Hazaras was the gewari system: when in need of a large sum of cash, a peasant could give his land as security against a loan, and remain as a tenant for up to 25 years before the property would be transferred to the lender. Over the years some wealthy nomads chose to settle near the Indus after accumulating enough capital to immediately assume the role of landlord (a status generally lost after a few generational land divisions), but they despised farming and most chose to avoid regulation and taxation by continuing to move among areas controlled by different authorities. No doubt, those who had previously settled have been inundated recently with requests for assistance from relatives.

Kaghan Valley extends for about one hundred miles in the extreme northeast corner of the NWFP. Geographically, it is the northeast" valley of Kashmir, for the Kunhar River which cuts it flows to Mazaffarabad and there joins the Jhelum River en route from Srinagar. To its east lies the Neelam Valley, cut by the Kishenganga River. The western slopes of this valley, adjacent to Kaghan, are controlled by Pakistan as Azad (Free) Kashmir. The border with India is on the eastern slope where the province of Kashmir commences. To the north of Kaghan lies the Gilgit Agency, created from some Kashmir territory plus surrounding districts by the British as a frontline post in response to their fears about Russian expansion into India. The main route to this area after the creation of Pakistan in 1947 was the Kaghan Road. Babusar Pass (13,700 feet), at the north end of the valley, created a barrier for all but a few months each year and every summer major reconstruction was required to compensate for damage during the winters. To the west of Kaghan is Indus Kohistan, another tribal territory where the central government has limited influence and jurisdiction. When the Karakoram Highway opened this valley for the first time about ten years ago for year-round traffic the necessity for maintaining the Kaghan road was obviated, a considerable loss for Kaghan businessmen. The entire region is dominated by the western end of the Great Himalaya Range. From Nangha Prabat (26,660 feet), just northeast of Kaghan Valley, run ridges with peaks of over 16,000 feet that demarcate all these valleys. Kaghan itself is very narrow and steep. In its northern half the valley floor rises from 8,000 to 11,000 feet and grazing lands are found between 10,000 and 14,000 feet. Throughout the well-watered region, to about 11,000 feet, is much of Pakistan's remaining virgin forest.

The valley is dominated by two families. The Syeds, originally from Anatolia, who conquered the territory about 300 years ago, retain all property rights in the northern half of the valley and exert much influence throughout it. The Swatis, centered in Balakot at the southern end of the valley, are Pathans who crossed the Indus and settled in and still dominate Mansehra District, of which Kaghan is part. The religious elite of the valley and many businessmen belong to this family. Many of the villagers are of Kashmiri origin, having fled during disturbances near Srinagar over a century ago. Others include Kohistanis and members of relatively small ethnic groups from Mansehra District and beyond. During winters most people leave the higher villages and settle in Balakot or nearby.

An indigenous nomadic group, the Gujers, has travelled through the valley since long before the Syeds came. They are looked down upon by the villagers and were formerly expected to routinely perform menial labor for the landlords. Their language, Gujeri, though similar to the Hindko spoken in the valley (itself close to Punjabi and therefore to Urdu) is unintelligible to an untrained car. The women wear distinctive embroidered caps and, like Afghan nomad women, are not veiled. Their small herds consist primarily of cows, horses, and water buffalo, but include a few sheep and goats. Some take animals belonging to settled residents of the lower end of the valley with them to the highlands during the summers on a contractual basis. For each animal they pay a fee (presently one rupee each for large animals, half that for small) to the Syeds. Each family has a recognized traditional grazing area, for example, part of a side valley, and circulates in its particular territory as long as the grass lasts. Near the villages, land is reserved for the villagers who graze their animals, usually just one cow or buffalo per household, during summer and cut the grass on steep slopes by hand during August to provide winter fodder. Similar seasonal migrations are found within Indus Kohistan and on the north side of the Himalaya, with Chilas residents crossing into the northern reaches of Kaghan. Formerly, Kohistanis crossed into Kaghan to purchase (or steal) their entire year's requirements of salt, cloth, and grain: now, as the new highway has brought markets into their own region, they purchase only seasonal supplies.

Prior to the influx of Afghan refugees, nearly 200,000 animals were grazed in Kaghan during the summer. As a result, the deterioration of pasture land was already serious. Though accurate counting of herds is difficult, estimates suggest a minimum of 500,000 additional animals, almost all sheep and goats, following the outbreak of fighting in Afghanistan. Afghan herds were well ensconced in the northern end of the valley by early June, 1982 and the grass was noticeably dry and walked-over in comparison with neighboring valleys of Indus Kohistan, while the very first of the Gujer nomads were still three days' walk below. Rather than finding lush fodder for their animals, they were unable to get any food for them at all, as bovines cannot graze on areas already eaten over by the Smaller sheep and goats. In 1982 flocks were being led down the valley an average of three weeks earlier than in 1981. The slopes high in the valley appeared to be in worse condition in September 1982 than in the same month of the previous year. Afghan nomads reported a deterioration of the grass during their short experience there. Members of a government wildlife survey team unofficially confirmed the impression that the pasture land is already past the point of regeneration. In early February 1983, Afghan refugees were as far north-as Abbottabad, their sheep eating the tiniest shoots of grass poking through the snow. Apparently the grass supply of the plains had been exhausted exceptionally early that winter due to the early return of herds from the mountains in 1982, heavy grazing in previous winters, and below normal precipitation. Thus, in summer 1983, the flocks arrived in the highlands even earlier than before. One can only draw the direst of conclusions about the future of the grasslands.

With the price of wood higher than that of steel in Pakistan now, competition for access to the forests is great. Much of the remaining forest in Kaghan is publicly controlled, and those controlling the sale of permits to cut these trees are in a position to gain a great deal. Local government projects financed by the sale of this timber transform age-old wealth into the short-term capital of local politicians. Those who stay for the winter in highland villages cut large quantities of wood. Throughout the year residents use wood for cooking and occasional heating. In the high pastures, nomads often collect small scrub for their fires. Dried dung burns well but is not available in sufficient quantity; burning also destroys its potential to replenish the soil. During the winters many Gujers and highland villagers who travel down the valley survive by cutting wood each day and selling what they can carry back to the bazaar in the evening. The result in the area around Balakot is severely trimmed trees. A cooperative Pakistan and West German government reforestation project is responsible for planting about one million trees each year, but without proper protection, the seedlings are often destroyed by grazing goats. The looming ecological crisis involves not just grass and forest but the land itself, for the danger of erosion is constantly increasing and the dams downstream may soon be threatened.

On some occasions conflicts have erupted between Afghan nomads and Kaghan villagers concerning the land traditionally reserved for the peasants and their animals. The traditionally subordinate Gujers have long-term interests in maintaining good relations with the villagers to ensure continuous, unimpeded grazing rights, and have respected the conventional allocation of land around the villages. In contrast, the refugees, following the cataclysmic disruption that they have experienced, have neither knowledge of local customs nor any long range interest in anything but their own survival. Some Afghans consider the fees they have paid to the Syed landlords entitlement to graze any and all land in the valley and have precipitated serious altercations with locals by insisting on grazing traditional village lands. Resentment, starting from the fact that the refugees, by virtue of their large herds and allowances, are much wealthier than the locals, has intensified as conflict has been fueled by increasing pressure on the land.

Some Gujers have long entered side valleys that abut traditional grazing lands of the Kohistanis. Members of the latter group spoke as though this was done at their own discretion, a privilege that could be rescinded at will. I was told that when Afghan refugee nomads begin to explore these side valleys or enter Kohistan proper, "we'll just shoot a few of the first, and then no more will come." It should be pointed out that no Afghans were to be seen beyond the mouths of the side valleys that I observed. I presume the response to my question was uttered in the wrong tense, i.e., that the Kohistanis had already informed the Afghans of their limits. Where then do they go with half a million animals? The only possibility is to the east through Azad Kashmir, around the southern slopes of Nangha Prabat, into Baltistan (ruled along with Gilgit by Pakistan as the Northern Areas), or into Indian territory. As both the Pakistani and Indian governments are extremely sensitive about this border, both are doubtless very distressed by the movement of such large numbers of desperate people through the area. International ramifications aside, there might be a possibility of developing long distance trade along this route; there could well be a market for Pakistani goods in Kashmir and vice versa. In resuming long distance camel caravaning up and down the Kaghan Valley to supply the bazaars in the north, they have already demonstrated a willingness to resume old economic ways. So, too, in India, in areas where land is available and refugees are not prohibited from buying it, there might be opportunities to acquire land, either with cash or through the traditional gewari system where loans allowed individuals access to land.

The non-nomadic majority of the Afghan refugees have much less flexibility in trying to cope with their dislocation. Aside from a few valuable rugs and perhaps a few animals, they were unable to bring any capital with them and are not permitted to purchase land to replace what they have lost. The price of land in Pakistan is now prohibitive in any case (as much as $50,000 per acre near Peshawar), for much cash is being sent home by overseas Pakistani workers in the Middle East. For those with business experience, there is some need for commercial establishments in the Afghan refugee camps, but opportunities to open shops or larger businesses in the cities are limited and regulations more complex than in Afghanistan. Individuals who owned trucks in Afghanistan, or who brought large herds across the border and then sold them in order to purchase a vehicle, have been able to prosper in the transport business, often undercutting the prices of Pakistani journeymen, but again, this is not an option available to the ordinary villager. Those refugees who have settled near big cities have generally constructed mud brick houses resembling those typical in their own regions, but the design, with its very poor ventilation, is unsuitable for this much hotter climate. The women, constrained by the rigidly enforced practice of purdah not to appear before strange men, are forced to stay inside much more in the crowded camps than in their home villages. They are thus subjected to more intense heat than they have ever known, forced to breathe smoky air more hours each day, and exposed to less sunlight, important for production of vitamin D. In addition, these hurriedly constructed dwellings were probably damaged considerably in the 1983 earthquake. Finally, in the event of conflict with locals, non-migrants are unable to slip away from confrontation with the Pakistani authorities as easily as their mobile countrymen.

All the Afghans have experienced disruption of their community life due either to the fighting or to migration. They have lost many of their friends and neighbors, their support networks, and marriage pools. Their economic and credit systems have been thrown into chaos. Migrants have lost or may lose all means of support other than dependency upon international donor agencies, either as a result of abandoning their land or because they cannot long maintain their herds on the pastures that are available to them. The nomads, more flexible at present than the refugee agriculturalists, may be forced to give up their entire mode of living when their demands upon limited resources of the area become too great.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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