Afghanistan: Elite Seizes Land

Publisher Name: 
Guardian (UK)

Kabul - He is the proud new owner of a plot of prime land, mystifyingly given to him by a nation that is desperately short of money. The neighbours will include Afghanistan's most powerful ministers.

Little wonder that as he inspected his half-built mansion, nothing - especially questions about his country's legions of homeless or rampant land grabbing by the ruling elite - could dent General Abdul Momen Atahi's spirits.

"The city's chief of police will live over there," the general said, cheerfully pointing at a site near by as a team of dust-covered labourers laid the bricks of what will become a spacious living room, adorned with balconies commanding a glorious view of the mountains.

"The Minister of Defence has a place over there," he said. "The deputy mayor of Kabul is there. And there's the Minister of Water and Power's plot." While millions of Afghans, many of them returned refugees, live in hopelessly inadequate housing - including buildings bombed out during two decades of war - government ministers and commanders are enmeshed in a scandal over the acquisition of prime land in Kabul.

International reconstruction efforts proceed at a snail's pace in much of the countryside, but steady progress is being made on scores of palatial homes in the capital's most prestigious neighbourhood. The affair is an embarrassment for the "transitional" government of Hamid Karzai, and for his chief sponsor, the United States, which is keen to declare Afghanistan a success, particularly after the disaster in Iraq.

It has come to the boil just after President George Bush requested $800m (500m) from Congress for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and as Afghan officials prepare to press the argument for more rebuilding funds to the US Treasury Secretary, John Snow, who arrived in Kabul yesterday.

Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission says all but four of Mr Karzai's 32 cabinet ministers have been given plots at Shir Pur village in Kabul, some of which the commission estimates are worth up to $170,000 - a reflection of soaring land prices in the post-Taliban capital.

General Atahi, commander of the 72nd Brigade, is one among scores of senior officials to benefit from the move, which he says was agreed by the cabinet. He says he paid the equivalent of $1,500 "for documentation"; otherwise the plot was free, although he is footing the bill for construction.

This, in itself, would be sufficient to generate an outcry. The list of people awaiting re-housing in the city of Kabul alone is 500,000, according to human rights activists. But the scandal acquired larger dimensions earlier this month when bulldozers were sent in to destroy mud and brick homes belonging to several hundred men, women and children in an attempt to drive them off part of the site.

Some of them have lived there for 25 years and say they have documents to prove their ownership rights. This claim contradicts some government officials who have sought to defend the construction of the estate by saying that it is on land wholly owned by the Ministry of Defence. "One hundred police came here and they started beating us," said one resident, Rahmat Shah, 43. "We were hoping things would be better after the Taliban, but then they did this."

Kabul's chief of police, Basir Salangi, is widely blamed for the attempted eviction and has been sacked. The houses themselves were half-destroyed before United Nations human rights officials, accompanied by international peace-keeping forces, intervened to halt the demolition. Since then, the families have refused to budge.

Finger-pointing is under way in Kabul over who is responsible; questions abound over whether President Karzai was involved, and whether he will now act to redress the situation - which may involve direct confrontation with some of his most influential ministers. It is also a test of the nascent human rights groups, who have seized on the issue, and Afghanistan's new media.

Several ministers have said that President Karzai himself approved the project. But he has denied any prior knowledge, and this week ordered a commission of inquiry.

"As far as I am aware the ministers who have taken land have paid for it," said the President's spokesman, Jawid Ludin. "It may have been a notional figure; it may not have been the market price. The commission will hopefully shed light on that."

Further heat was added to the issue by Miloon Kothari, an independent consultant who spent a fortnight travelling around Afghanistan to compile a report on land and housing issues for the UN's Human Rights Commission. He found widespread evidence that provincial warlords and government officials - exploiting the lack of a judiciary or land registries - are grabbing land illegally, forcing people to sell, and driving up property prices to levels well beyond the means of the poor by land speculation, sometimes to launder drugs money.

He also announced that a "very long list" of officials at the "very highest level" were involved and specifically cited the Shir Pur affair. He named the Defence Minister, Marshal Mohammed Qasim Fahim - who is one of Afghanistan's most powerful and controversial figures - as directly involved, and called for his dismissal.

Marshal Fahim, a Tajik, has issued heated denials. But these have not mollified many. Abdul Sabor, a teacher, lives with his family in the bomb-shattered ruins of a house in west Kabul, much of which was damaged during the 1993 civil war. He has been waiting for years to be re-housed. "We are just pawns in a game played by thieves and criminals," he said.

AMP Section Name:Human Rights