Afghan Environmental Health Problems Legacy of Land-Grab

MAZAR-e-SHARIF, Afghanistan, November 21, 2008 (ENS) – Residents of Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan’s second -largest city, are suffering from a polluted environment caused by urban expansion on land seized by warlords.

Amad Samim, 15, was covered in dust from head to toe after his energetic football game with friends on the street of his neighborhood, Kart-e-Zahiruddin Farabi, in Mazar-e-Sharif.

“My neighbors yell at me when I play football, saying that I will smash their windows,” he said, breathing heavily. “My family is also angry with me. They’re afraid I’ll get hit by a car.”

One of his friends had his leg broken a few days ago when he was struck by a vehicle. “But where should we play football?” said Amad. “There is no playground or park. What are we supposed to do?”

A decades-old land grab has left Mazar-e-Sharif and much of the rest of Balkh province with little or no open areas or green spaces. While the government tries to cope with the nearly impossible task of reclaiming the land, residents are suffering the ill effects of living in a polluted environment devoid of trees and other vegetation.

Girl at the Blue Mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif
(Photo by Andy Simmonds)

Mazar-e-Sharif has been losing its open spaces for decades, ever since the 1990s free-for-all that is known as the “era of the warlords.” In those times, a man with power and a militia could rule his district like his own personal fiefdom, seizing territory, terrorizing the population, even, in several instances, issuing his own currency.

These warlords also dispensed patronage, often in the form of land that technically belonged to the central government. Land issues are among the thorniest confronting the central government today, and account for a large percentage of cases making their way through the country’s slowly reforming judiciary.

“The seizure of government lands is still a challenge for us,” said Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh province. “The land mafia is still building illegally on these properties. We see the situation but cannot do anything.”

During the 1990s, when strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum ruled much of the north, thousands of acres of land were seized and sold to warlords, added the governor. Now, decades later, it is almost impossible to reclaim them, or to sort out the rightful owners.

“General Dostum ordered the distribution of 30,000 jeribs (approximately 15,000 acres) of government land to one of his deputy commanders,” said Atta. “The deputy commander later received official documents showing that he owned the land.”

Mohammad Younus Muqim, the mayor of Mazar-e-Sharif, told a similar story.

“I confirm that … all of Mazar’s green areas have been seized,” he said. “But this is not a recent phenomenon; it happened before the Taliban regime, during the rule of General Dostum.”

Dostum, a highly controversial figure, is part of the central government now himself. He currently occupies the position of chief-of-staff to President Hamed Karzai, a largely ceremonial post that has not kept him out of trouble, or out of the north.

Last February, a very public and violent spat with a former colleague prompted the then attorney general, Abdul Jabal Sabet, to issue a warrant for his arrest, which Dostum ignored. Nevertheless, the colorful strongman still wields his power, seemingly beyond the reach of the law.

No officials from Dostum’s Junbish-e-Milli party would comment on the allegations of illegal land seizure. Azizullah Kargar, deputy head of the party in Mazar-e-Sharif, declined to be interviewed, saying only that the issue of land ownership was a matter for the courts.

Mazar-e-Sharif has few trees and
little green space. (Photo by Jozsef Marian)

Afghanistan’s minister for urban development, Mohammad Yousuf Pashtoon, told reporters during a trip to the north in 2007 that more land had been seized in Mazar-e-Sharif than in any other city except the capital, Kabul.

“Though most of the green areas and government lands in the province have already been taken by powerful men, it is still going on,” he said at the time. “Local officials, warlords and other powerful men are still seizing land.”

According to ministry statistics, more than 40,000 jeribs (approximately 20,000 acres) of green or open lands have been seized in Balkh province, and are being built up as residential areas.

Mohammad Ismail Rahimi, head of the Department for Urban Development in Northern Afghanistan, says that Balkh had lost more than 50 percent of its open areas since 1993.

“I have seen many written requests to mayors, that government-owned open spaces be given over to local strongmen,” he said. “The then mayors agreed, despite our objections, either because they were afraid or they were receiving bribes. They would give these powerful men legal documents saying that they owned the lands.”

Jaan Mohammad, a Mazar-e-Sharif official, said that the blame belongs to those who were in power at the time the land was seized.

“I have documents in which [a] governor had ordered that land be distributed to his friends, but the district chiefs said no. The land is government-owned and cannot be given away in this manner. The governor just ordered that the land be distributed, saying, ‘I don’t care where it is,’” he said.

Deputy Attorney-General Timor Shah Stanekzai traveled to the north in April in an attempt to untangle the difficult question of land ownership.

“More than 400,000 jeribs of land have been sold or grabbed illegally in Balkh province,” he told a press conference. “Out of these, 40,000 jeribs were open spaces, or green areas.”

Stanekzai promised to take the matter up in Kabul, but there has not been any word from the capital.

A local market in Mazar-e-Sharif (Photo
by Svetlana Senajova)

Abdul Basir Kadang, a provincial official, believes that it will be impossible to recover the lands. The jihadi factions that originally seized the properties in the 1990s have re-sold them, he said, confusing the issue even more. In addition, many of those responsible for the land-grab are now in positions of power in Kabul.

“We have documents which show the involvement in land seizure of jihadi leaders, commanders and those who are in senior government posts and the Afghan parliament,” said Kadang.

While the government dithers, the health of Mazar-e-Sharif residents is suffering.

Doctor Mohammad Haider Yawazi, who has a practice in the city, says that the lack of greenery has caused respiratory ailments among the population.

“I visit from 15 to 20 patients a day,” he said. “Most of them are city dwellers with respiratory, lung and liver disease. The main reason for their sickness is the polluted air and environment.”

Noor Ahmad, 18, a resident of Kart-e-Zahiruddin Farabi in the west of the city, just wants a place where he can breathe freely.

“When I come home from school, I eat lunch and do my homework,” he said. “After that I go out to play football or volleyball and get some fresh air. But we cannot do that here. There is no fresh air in this city.”

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