Hundreds of Pashtun refugees who have returned from Pakistan to Afghanistan's northeastern Takhar Province say their properties have been seized by local people and militias from other ethnic groups.
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About 500 Pashtuns (Afghanistan's largest ethnic group) sheltering in dilapidated government buildings in the Khowaja Bahaudin District in Takhar said they left the area during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.
On their return from Pakistan, the returnees claimed, they found their lands and houses seized, mostly by Uzbek militias (Uzbeks are the fourth-largest ethnic group).
Their allegations were confirmed by the Ministry of Refugees and Returnees (MoRR).
"Pashtun returnees have been denied access to their own lands and houses in Takhar Province," Shir Mohammad Etibari, the minister, told IRIN in Kabul.
Etibari said Pashtun returnees were also facing ethnicity-related resentments over resettlement in some other northern provinces where mostly Uzbek and Tajiks (the second-largest ethnic group) make up the majority.
Millions of Afghans from around the country fled, mostly to neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, over the past three decades and about 4.3 million of them have returned since 2002, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Tens of thousands of Pashtuns also moved to the mostly Pashtun south after the Taliban (which were largely Pashtun-based) were defeated in 2001, aid agencies reported.
Photo: Ataullah Obaidi/IRIN
Returnees said their properties were seized because of ethnic antagonism in the area
Returnee families insist they possess formal and traditional documents proving their ownership over disputed properties.
"We are not making false claims," said an elderly man, Haji Wali Khan.
However, their claims were rejected by people who occupy or control the lands.
"We don't accept their deeds ... they've forged documents," charged a local man, Sayed Hakim.
Some Uzbek and Tajik locals also criticised previous governments for alleged arbitrary distribution of public land to Pashtuns.
"Documents issued during the reign of Zahir Shah [1933-1973] are no longer valid here," said an Uzbek leader, Jamshid.
Government under fire
President Hamid Karzai appointed a government commission to resolve the land disputes in Takhar Province and to help the reintegration of returnees.
Photo: Ataullah Obaidi/IRIN
|Pashtoon children returnees in Takhar hope that the courts will let them have their own homes|
"We were only able to ask all parties to avoid confrontations until the end of Ramadan [30 September]," Wahidullah Sabawoon, head of the commission, told IRIN, adding that the government was intending to clarify property ownership documents via the judiciary after Ramadan.
Etibari criticised the government for "weak" and "insufficient" intervention.
"The government cannot compel commanders and militias and cannot enforce the rule of law," Etibari said.
Amid the tensions, children, women and the elderly who have been settled in deserted buildings reportedly lack access to safe drinking water, food, health services and education.
Government officials in Kabul said they were trying to send two trucks of food aid to returnees in Takhar Province to meet their immediate needs.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions