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Afghanistan's Marginalized Minority Fights Stateless Status

A Mosuli family rests in their traditional tent near Khost city.
A Mosuli family rests in their traditional tent near Khost city.

Mosulis, a nomadic people of Iraqi origin, have lived in Afghanistan for centuries. In recent decades, they have fought alongside mujahedin forces and contributed significantly to local industry and culture.

But due to their exotic ancestry and itinerant lifestyle, Mosulis are still not recognized as legal citizens by successive Afghan governments.

Tracing their roots to the southern Iraqi city of Mosul, the Mosulis migrated east to Iran and Afghanistan during the time of the Abbasid caliphate (750–1258 AD), says Zarwali Sediqi, a genealogist at the Shaikh Zahed University of Khost.

Aside from southeastern Khost Province, the Mosuli people reside in the nearby Paktia and Paktika provinces. Pockets of Mosulis also live in the capital Kabul, the southern province of Kandahar and the northern province of Balkh, as well as across the border in Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, they are part of a larger group of itinerant communities called Jats (Jattan and Jath in Afghan languages), which can be interpreted as similar to "gypsy" in Europe.

Mosuli customs and lifestyle differ from those of the resident populations of the lands they inhabit. This occasionally brings them into conflict with their surroundings.

Mosuli women, for instance, who wander in remote districts and villages by foot and horse-drawn carts, are often stigmatized because they work outside the home, selling handicrafts and collecting donations from strangers.

"At daybreak we get on our horses and move from village to village, collecting handouts and asking for charitable donations," says Dowlat Mosuli, 65, a member of the Mosuli who lives in a tent on the southern outskirts of Khost city. "Upon request, our men and women also play music at their weddings or other ceremonies."

The Mosuli itinerant lifestyle also causes some obstacles for police. Most members of the minority group lack government-issued identity cards and often encounter difficulties at security checkpoints.

In Khost, where some 17,000 Mosuli families currently reside, the nomads lack access to basic government services, including education. They cannot send their children to school without first obtaining identity cards, which would require them to register a permanent place of residence.

"During King Zaher Shah’s reign (1933–73), the government was about to distribute homes to our people in the capital and in some border areas, but we did not accept the offer because property taxes were too high at the time," recalls Dowlat Mosuli.

"Now we have realized that this decision has led us into a life of uncertainty," he adds. "If we had received identity cards, our sons would be studying at schools and we would have a more prosperous life."

Zamen, a 65-year-old Mosuli, says the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan makes life difficult. "There were times when our young men fought for the freedom of Afghanistan shoulder-to-shoulder with the mujahedin. Today, they are refusing to give us national ID cards. We are really disappointed."

Noor Moalem, head of the registry in Khost Province, says that despite multiple requests from the Mosuli Union, the central government has told provincial authorities not to issue them ID cards "to avoid future security threats."

President Ashraf Ghani's national unity government is reportedly keen on helping Afghanistan's nomadic groups.

But Kabul's enthusiasm for helping the larger group of Pashtun Kochi nomads has not yet had any bearing on the Mosulis' ambiguous status.

"Our children are smart and alert. We always hope to enroll them in schools, but we are not given the right," says Zamen. "We are living in a state of limbo."

The Mosulis’ ambiguous citizenship status has not stopped them from contributing to local culture. In Khost, they are renowned for their musical talent and skill at playing traditional Afghan instruments like the rubab, a short-necked lute.

Aslam Kaka, 85, is a famous Mosuli rubab player who lives in Kandayoo Dadee, close to Khost city.

Gul Zaman, 88, a singer known nationwide, is one of the few successful members of the group. He holds Afghan citizenship, and his children are educated.

Zaman is known for his romantic and patriotic songs. He is currently deputy head of the Musicians Union and also works at the National Radio Television of Afghanistan, organizing and composing music for Pashtun singers.

"I have repeatedly shared the issue of my tribe's identity with the central government, but they have not responded positively," he says. "I have never understood why not."