Afghanistan’s Kochi nomads are dying out, spelling the end of an ancient way of life.
The first small Kuchi camp emerges and disappears just as quickly from view, obscured by the dust raised by the churning wheels of the police and army convoy that I am travelling in. We speed on, for this is known to be Taliban territory and slowing down to take in the sights is not an option.
The low-slung nomad tents, made of animal skins, patched cloth or canvas (the last provided by various aid agencies) blend in the harsh environment of scree slopes, stony steppes and scrub land nestled at the feet of spectacular mountains locking the world of the ‘others’ out on all sides. Camels stand around, some loaded with the Kochis’ worldly goods, others masticating cud as they wait their turn, while flocks of Karakul sheep search out invisible sustenance under the sharp eyes of gaily attired women and children herding mules. The men sit around smoking or fiddle with the tractors and trailers which are fast replacing camels as a means of getting from one camping ground to the next. For a very few, brightly decorated trucks are another option.
All this is soon enveloped by the dust, just as the Kochis themselves will inevitably disappear into the all-consuming chaos of unwritten history. The deep and indefinable longing that pulls at my soul whenever I witness the seductive rhythms of nomadic life is now mingled with regret as we pass them by.
But then we turn a corner and another camp emerges into view.
Nomadic life is not still — not for a single second of daylight is there cessation of motion. Animals must be herded, milked, slaughtered, skinned and the skins cleaned and dried for trade. There is ghee to make, tough fodder to find, meager meals to cook, bead work and other sewing tasks to be completed, and water to be searched for before dusk. These and other life-sustaining chores, in addition to the daily treks from one pasturage to another, comprise the daily battle for survival that is the life of a nomad — a far cry from what an outsider may perceive as an otherwise idyllic existence.
Just eight years ago, a survey estimated that there were approximately 2.4 million Kuchi nomads in Afghanistan, with 1.5million of them fully nomadic and others semi-nomadic. But recent figures suggest that the overall number of Kuchi nomads, who mainly belong to the Ghilzai, Kakar, Lochi, Ahmadzai and Durrani Pashtun tribes, has decreased to just below one million and the numbers are only expected to fall further.
Ever since Soviet and American aid resulted in the construction of road arteries and the trucking fleets began to ply what was once wilderness, the Kuchis have seen their traditional caravan culture severely eroded. Then came the closure of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the early 1960s which impeded their cross-border routes and hence the trading that is the lifeline of their meager nomadic economy.
Then came the Soviet Invasion of 1979 and the death knell of the Kochis took on a keening note as the nomads were routinely bombed, shelled and shot at. Their pasturages became infested with both the live and dead debris of war and today. Their plight is further exacerbated by continual civil war, the presence of foreign troops and an astronomical number of US cluster bombs which make mountain treks and grazing an often deadly affair.
And nature, it seems, also has it in for the Kuchis. A severe drought between 1971 and ‘72 and another one from 1998 to 2002 took a terrible toll on the nomads, with the latter drought killing at least 75 per cent of the flocks that provided them daily sustenance. This drove a sizeable number of nomads into camps for internally displaced persons adjacent to major population centers such as Kabul.
The high mountain steppe world of traditional Kochi nomads, a place of unbelievable grandeur and mystical collective memory, is being forced into extinction by the twin perils of warfare and modernity. Heartbreakingly, these proud remnants of an ancient race who adhere to an equally ancient way of life will soon disappear from the pages of this harsh reality.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 5th, 2012.