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Land Disputes Overwhelm Government Machinery In Restive Afghan Province

Helmand is one of the Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces.
Helmand is one of the Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces.

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Scores of petitioners patiently wait outside the governor's office in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

Most of them, however, have no intention of asking the government for protection or warning them about the rapid Taliban advances in Helmand's rural districts during recent months.

Most of the turbaned men at the sprawling compound are nervously clutching papers and intend to petition the governor to help resolve their land disputes.

Some of these disputes run for years and even decades, creating untold misery for those involved.

Abdul Baqi is one of the worried lot. Eight months ago, the municipality in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah demolished his home as part of a new plan to widen city streets. But instead of offering him compensation or even building something for public use, he says, his land was simply allotted to someone else.

For many months, he has been making regular rounds of municipality and other government offices, but nobody seems eager to help him.

"We lost our house, which cost me 2 million Afghanis ($40,000), and we lost most of our possessions," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "We are forced to live in a rented house. I have petitioned the municipality and the provincial council, and I don't know what more can I do to get my land back. Despite having all the right papers, I see no signs that my suffering is going to end soon."

Mirza Khan Rahimi
Mirza Khan Rahimi

​Helmand Governor Mirza Khan Rahimi says land disputes are often exacerbated by widespread government corruption. He says this issue has now overwhelmed the government machinery to the extent that it cannot address rising security threats.

Since the beginning of the year, Helmand has emerged as the No. 1 target for Taliban attacks. In an effort to capture territory after the departure of most international troops last year, the Taliban launched incessant attacks on Helmand's northern districts before capturing Musa Qala and Nawzad districts in recent weeks.

Rahimi and most provincial officials, however, spend their time trying to resolve disputes about land ownership.

"Since my appointment four months ago, I have mostly dealt with the maze of land disputes where typically a plaintiff's land is wrongfully allotted to someone else," he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Rahimi says some corrupt officials have even sold the land reserved for parks or mosques. On occasion, such land was granted to senior officials who then built markets and gas stations.

"Every imaginable irregularity and wrong has been committed here, but still we need to resolve all these disputes," he said.

Rahimi says he has asked the government attorneys, the police, and intelligence to devise ways to quickly resolve these disputes. "How long will we grapple with these disputes?" he asked. "We need to make a determined, collective effort to do away with them."

Officials dealing with the land issue, however, blame senior provincial and central government officials for the mess.

Ahmed Massod Sailab, deputy head of Lashkar Gah's municipality, rejected all accusations of corruption and irregularities.

"All concerned government departments and senior officials have backed our decisions, and they have also been approved by the Urban Development Ministry," he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Given the often-disappointing performance of provincial authorities, Helmand's residents are not optimistic about seeing a just resolution of their land disputes.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.