By Gol Ahmad Ehsan
Residents of parts of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan have accused both government and NATO forces of taking over and occupying private houses without paying compensation to the owners.
A resident of Musa Qala district, Shawali, said foreign troops had been using a property belonging to him for several years without any kind of reimbursement.
“I’ve met the foreign forces who are living in my house several times, asking them either to pay me rent or to vacate the property, but every time they say only that they will ‘try their best’. I don’t know what they mean by ‘trying,’” he said. “I don’t want any kind of aid from them. They just have to get out of my house so I can return to live there with my children.”
Esmatullah Ishaqzai, a representative of Nawzad district in the Helmand provincial council, said that besides occupying private property, the international forces used farmland to land helicopters, and knocked down compound and boundary walls to provide access for their vehicles.
“If security is restored, the foreigners leave these areas and the owners of the land return, then they will be in dispute with one another over the boundaries of their properties,” he said.
Ishaqzai said local residents were due backdated rent as well as compensation, and urged the Kabul government to take the matter seriously.
A tribal elder in Nawzad district, who preferred to remain anonymous, said NATO forces had blocked the main road through the district for security reasons, in the process obstructing movement for local people and disrupting transport, which drove up the price of basic goods.
Afghanistan’s national security forces have taken over properties in the same way.
Khan Mohammad, a resident of Musa Qala, said that because the government had failed to provide buildings for its troops in the district, the Afghan soldiers had simply moved into private houses and commercial premises.
“Members of the public now have a problem,” he said. “They come to the governor’s office every day to ask for their properties to be returned, for rent to be paid or for their houses to be vacated, but the government pays no attention.”“Members of the public now have a problem,” he said. “They come to the governor’s office every day to ask for their properties to be returned, for rent to be paid or for their houses to be vacated, but the government pays no attention.”
Because Helmand has been the scene of major battles in recent years, many civilians have fled to seek refuge elsewhere in the country, leaving their property behind. Many have set up home in the Afshar district of the Afghan capital Kabul, where they survive in poor conditions.
Tor Khan lives in an old tent in Afshar and supports his family through begging. He is originally from Helmand’s Garmsir district, where he owns a house and farmland.
“We ran from the war and came to Kabul,” he said. “We’ve been living under canvas for four years now and no one cares about us.”
Once, he said, he did return to Garmsir district, but when he arrived at his home, it had been occupied by foreign forces.
“They wouldn’t let me come near my own house,” he recalled. “They pointed a gun at me from the roof. I went to the governor’s office where I was told they were unable to instruct the foreigners to do anything. I left disappointed.”
Officials in Helmand province acknowledged there was a problem, although not all agreed on the scale of the home occupations or whether compensation was paid.
Helmand governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal said that he was aware of the issue and confirmed that both government units and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, made use of private property, including houses and farmlands.
“I have repeatedly told our police and army commanders to avoid damaging private property when they enter these areas, but there have been a number of cases where Afghan and ISAF forces have taken over and used people’s properties,” he said.
The local government chief in Nawzad district, Sayed Morad, said that both Afghan and foreign forces occupied private houses, and he was unaware of any schemes for either force to make payments to the landlords.
Governor Mangal’s spokesman, Mohammad Daud Ahmadi, said he believed that American forces usually paid rent to owners, while the Afghan national army and police did not.
Helmand’s chief of police, Mohammad Hakim Angar, said both foreign and national troops used houses as temporary bases during operations, and paid compensation to the owners.
“We need to take control in some areas and we pay rent [for properties]. ISAF has taken over some locations; we have talked to them about it and they have promised to vacate people’s houses. We try not to harm anyone,” Angar said.
An official spokesman for ISAF Regional Command Southwest said the NATO force did not pay to lease properties, but that the individual nations that contributed troop contingents could “make their own arrangements bilaterally with the owner of a property”.
For instance, “it is US policy to pay compensation for the use of private property such as land or buildings”, he said.
The spokesman said there were no figures to show how many properties had been used, but added that many were occupied by US forces purely on a short-term, temporary basis.
He said anyone seeking compensation should contact the military unit occupying their property for an application form to get the process started.
“There is a claims process that owners can use. They fill in paperwork to record the proof of ownership and their claim. This goes to the [Regional Command South West] land acquisition chief to approve the handover of money,” he said.
However, seizures of property remain a sensitive matter that feeds resentment and drives some Helmand residents to sympathise with the insurgents.
“We have no control over our own houses, farmland and roads,” the tribal elder in Nawzad said. “That is the reason the Taleban fight, and they are in the right. We must gain our freedom.”
Gol Ahmad Ehsan is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand.