By Shuhab Aryaee*
Shams ul-Haq* is a Gujar living in one of the remote villages of Tagab district, Badakhshan province. With his greying hair and mostly white beard, the 54-year-old breathes heavily as he climbs up the hill to his house, stopping at least three points on the 15-minute trek. He must traverse this difficult path several times a day as there is no paved road in the area. His home is a 16-square-metre (175 square foot) room made of stone and mud, with its interior walls uneven, rough, and dirty, the floor tilted and cracked, reflecting his family’s poverty and deprivation — it’s more of a four-walled shelter than a house.
This room is used by Shams ul-Haq’s eight-member family and three domestic animals. The stench of dirt and the animals’ feces assaults the senses. Three goats and sheep are tied to iron stakes in a corner of this room. A thin, worn-out red carpet with two light cushions is visible near the entrance. The other side reveals their filthy bedding with faded green, pink, and white hues. In another corner, blackened tea kettles and old aluminum and plastic utensils catch the eye.
One of his five children is outside with his mother fetching drinking water, which they must haul up the hill to their home. Another child, 4-year-old Suleiman, feeds himself dry bread and offers some to the goats and sheep.
“The house has a 200-square-metre foundation, but due to economic problems, we couldn’t finish it,” Shams ul-Haq tells Zan Times. “We’ve been stuck with this lifestyle since childhood, and our forefathers also lived this way with animals. We live with the animals, but we relieve ourselves outside.” The herder works for people in his village. “Annually, I am given about 700 kilograms of wheat [for my work], which amounts to about 20,000 afghanis. With this money, I can’t improve the house so we must pass our days like this.”
Due to its elevation, the house gets bitterly cold during the snowy winters and they are isolated from the rest of the region, explains Shams ul-Haq: “Our situation is terrible in winter because our house gets buried under snow. We burn goat and sheep dunk, which we dry during the three dry seasons, in a stove. Even then, due to the cold, we shiver.”
While talking to Shams ul-Haq, his wife enters the house, and we step out as he doesn’t want her wife to talk to a strange man. Continuing my conversation with him, I realize that the women and girls of the Gujar community are bound by conservative social constraints imposed by tradition and patriarchy. Away from Shams ul-Haq’s house, I catch a glimpse of a young girl staring at us from a window; she smiles and seems curious but hides after I return her smile.
When I ask Shams al-Haq to arrange for me or a local female reporter to speak with Gujar women in the area, he gets angry, saying, “Women, even our daughters, should not talk to strangers.” Women in the village spend so much of their time occupied with house chores that there’s not a single educated female with more than a sixth-grade education among them.
Gujar women have distinctive handmade clothing, which resembles traditional country attire. Finally, I managed to talk to a woman from behind the wall of her house. The woman says her name is Qamar Bibi, and she is 67 years old. In a trembling voice, she complains about social constrictions: “In this village, no woman is literate. We are stuck and confined. How long shall we remain buried among these mountains and hills? We want to live elsewhere.” She has spent her life caring for animals in this remote region and wants to move to a more hospitable area. Then Qamar Bibi’s voice fades from behind the wall, and Shams ul-Haq tells me that is all I will hear of a woman’s voice.
The Gujar people speak the Gujari language, and it’s rare to find someone who can speak Persian. All 80 families residing in this village belong to the Gujar community and they rarely see anyone from outside their area. As their village lacks modern transportation, Shams ul-Haq says that residents use donkeys: “Due to the lack of roads, I have to walk for four to six hours to get the necessities for the family from the market — especially in the winter months, the commute is torture.”
The poverty in the Gujar settlements of Badakhshan is evident in the appearance of their houses, which are built on dusty and rocky hills using stones and mud and lack the most basic facilities and comforts. These buildings are also highly vulnerable to earthquakes, avalanches, and floods. They blame the government of Afghanistan, which they say has neglected the Gujar community despite being aware of their harsh living conditions.
The neglect endured by the Gujar community goes beyond that experienced by many rural communities. The Gujar community’s existence is not registered with the state institutions and thus not recognized, so officials have easily ignored their problems and needs. The overt discrimination they’ve faced for generations has become more extreme now that the Taliban are back in power. Some Gujars in Badakhshan believe that they will be forced to leave Afghanistan if they aren’t granted rights equal to other citizens.
Mohammad Yaqub* has lost his patience at the perpetual deprivation of his people “I am 32 years old, and I have never seen any attention given to us or our problems addressed,” he tells Zan Times. He mentions that Gujars have lived in this region for more than 150 years, yet are still ignored by officials. He thinks they might need to leave for somewhere where their children can study, and their sick can access healthcare.
This Gujar village has no school, health centre, electricity, paved roads or other basic amenities. Many Gujar youth prefer working as shepherds rather than trekking eight to 10 kilometres to the only school in the area that teaches beyond the fourth grade. says, “One of the issues is the risk of landslides from the high mountains that have also claimed the lives of several students,” explains Shams ul-Haq, who never attended school and is illiterate. Despite all the hardships, he wants to stay in this village but wishes for their needs to be met and roads, clinics, and schools to be built for them.
Abdul Rahim*, 58, another Gujar residing in Badakhshan province, herds for non-Gujar people. He claims to have lived in this district for more than 50 years and has eight children, none of whom have studied beyond the third grade. A life of shepherding means he can only afford a small two-room house of mud and stone and uses a tandoor clay oven to heat the house during winter. For him, the biggest problem is lack of medical care: “People in Gujar settlements face serious problems in treating patients, especially in transferring pregnant women to maternity wards, and due to the lack of health centres, many mothers die during childbirth.”
He points out that the lack of vehicles means Gujar men use mules or horses to transport the sick to medical care, but many patients often die due to the length of the journey. One such fatality was Sima*, a pregnant 38-year-old who died while being transferred to a district medical centre in January 2022. Shams ul-Haw is a relative. “We waited for hours for transportation, but her condition worsened. My cousin and I tried to transfer her to the maternity ward using two wooden sticks and a cot, but within about half an hour of our journey, her bleeding intensified, and she died with her child in her womb,” he recounts.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the interviewees and writer. Shuhab Aryaee is the pseudonym of a Zan Times journalist in Afghanistan.