Page last updated at 16:10 GMT, Monday, 13 October 2008 17:10 UK

Hard times for Afghan nomads

By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Afghanistan

Many Kuchis receive little or no formal education

For Kuchi nomads like Rahmat Goal's family, survival is a daily struggle.

It took me eight hours to hike through the Hindu Kush mountains in Turkman Dara in northern Afghanistan to get to Rahmat's tent.

His only neighbours are the high peaks of the Hindu Kush, and the wild spring that flows through a nearby valley.

His dog, Babar, keeps a watchful eye for wolves and other dangerous animals that occasionally breach the boundaries of his territory.

"Even the tigers and lions are scared of my dog," boasts Rahmat with a grin.

Originally from south-eastern Afghanistan, Rahmat's family experienced the hardship of the Soviet occupation.

Everyone else fled but we didn't have anywhere else to go
Rahmat Goal

"When the Russians came, everyone fled but we couldn't, because we had hundreds of sheep, goats and camels.

"We didn't have anywhere else to go, so we stayed," remembers Rahmat bitterly.

The decision to remain in Afghanistan ended up costing Rahmat's family dear.

"One morning we left for the border with Pakistan and a landmine blew up five of my family members and killed dozens of our animals.

"It was all the more painful because we had to leave their bodies and continue," recalls Rahmat, his eyes welling up with tears.

'Promises broken'

For as long as Afghans can remember, Kuchis have provided the backbone of the trade and commerce that occurs at the cross-section between South Asia and the Middle East.

Rahmat Goal
Rahmat Goal survived the Soviet invasion

They have also borne the brunt of Afghanistan's wars throughout the years.

When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Kuchis arguably suffered more than anyone else as they were without shelter and constantly found themselves amid the fighting.

The lifestyle of the Kuchi nomads means most of them are kept out of touch with the modern world - they still spend their lives without proper sanitation or formal education systems.

Although the life of the Kuchi has always been hard, they say things have worsened under the current Afghan government.

"Hospitals turn down our sick, and cemeteries deny our dead," says a Kuchi elder in the capital, Kabul.

''We are disappointed but we are trying to get our rights recognised. We have met President Karzai who has promised to end our suffering and we trust his word," says the elder, sipping green tea at his Kabul mansion.

Kuchis live in some of the remotest parts of Afghanistan

The Kuchis comprise approximately six million of Afghanistan's 25 million citizens, and they primarily consist of Pashtun and Baloch nomads. Kuchis are also estimated to make up half of Afghanistan's Pashtun population.

The status quo is intolerable, Kuchis say, as they continue to be denied health care, education and electricity.

Kuchi elders are clearly frustrated with President Karzai: "We need schools, clinics and our rights. We all voted for Karzai but he never honoured his promises," says another elder.

Young Kuchis, such as 14-year-old Zar Gola, hope to attend school, but instead they must tend livestock in order to ensure their family's survival.

Zar Gola has been a shepherd for the last five years, and when she turns 16 she will have to take on more responsibilities, such as milking the animals.

She is a shy young girl with weary, weathered eyes set above long, slim cheek bones.

"When we travel for days, I do see a lot of girls and boys going and coming from school. I want to be like them but we travel all the time," says Zar Gola.

'Not worried'

Unfortunately, critics say, the Karzai administration seems only to pay attention to Kuchi demands during election years.

Kuchi with livestock
Kuchi nomads with their livestock

Kuchis often note that Naim Kuchi, the nomads' most prominent figure, was only freed from imprisonment by the US-led coalition in the months preceding the post-Taleban presidential elections of 2005.

In this time of extraordinary uncertainty about Afghanistan's future, Kuchis appear as resilient as ever.

"I love being a Kuchi because this is the life my forefathers practised, and I have no interest in leaving my tradition. We will be packing again very soon for the east of the country before winter arrives," says a Kuchi father of four.

He pauses before continuing: "I am not worried about it at all because that is the life of a Kuchi."

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