HERAT, AFGHANISTAN — Amid the city’s swirling winds, construction crews work steadily to create a new downtown strip that, someday, will include high-rise office towers and thousands of new homes.
That’s bad news for people like Nesar Ahmad Papalzai who have watched the rising property values in their city in western Afghanistan contribute to a chronic problem: land-grabbing.
The practice — in which acres of private and government land are illegally seized by local strongmen, corrupt officials and other opportunists — contributes to thousands of land disputes in Afghanistan. They in turn undermine President Ashraf Ghani’s efforts to convince Afghans that their country is crawling toward civil stability.
During the last few years, Papalzai has helplessly watched a well-connected developer take over his two-acre farm and erect a building with four new shops.
Papalzai said the developer threatened to have him killed after he complained to local officials about the construction. After Papalzai sued the developer, a police commander threw him in jail for a month and warned him to stop, he said.
“It is my right; it is my property,” insisted Papalzai, showing a document saying that he bought the land from an older brother in 1995. “I would rather he take my life than my property.”
While government forces fight Taliban insurgents daily across the country, smaller but equally bitter battles over land are thinning the ranks of Afghans who believe the government is on their side.
“It’s the biggest obstacle we have in helping people get on with their lives,” said Nicholas Harcourt-Leftwich, head of Afghanistan programs for the Norwegian Refugee Council, a leading advocate for stronger land laws.
The disputes stem largely from Afghanistan’s ineffective system for land registration, which government officials are trying to fix with a sweeping effort to survey properties and clarify who owns what in large swaths of the country. Roughly 80 percent of Afghan property is not formally registered with an owner, according to the Afghanistan land authority, known as ARAZI.
Where claims on property do exist, the documents are often unreliable, international aid groups say. Or they’re simply ignored in an overburdened national court system where bribes and other forms of corruption are common.
“When we investigate land grabbers, they’ve already made fake documents of sales,” said Brig. Gen. Abdul Ghayor Andarabi, head of major-crimes investigations for the Afghan Interior Ministry. “It takes years for a case to be resolved.”
Local strongmen tend to see the land around them as theirs for the taking. Debt collectors seize homes as payment, relatives squabble over land inheritances that were passed down by word of mouth, and new widows see their properties disappear with their husbands’ last breath.
With about $18.5 million from the World Bank, ARAZI is working to develop a formal system of land registration that would help prevent disputes.
Herat, a city of 15th-century minarets and tree-lined boulevards near the Iranian border, is a proving ground for the project. But it also demonstrates why it is so difficult to bring order to the country.
North and south of this city, rival Taliban factions are fighting for control. In Herat itself, kidnappers nab local businessmen or their children almost daily. Government officials are regular targets of shootings.
Local officials hope to make Herat an economic hub in the region through a “master plan” that, when complete, will accommodate 2 million people in what has been a city of 600,000.
The project, which would include 10,000 new homes for middle-class families and a central business district, isn’t expected to be finished for 15 years.
But all that development comes at a cost, and poorer residents already feel its impact.
Papalzai, who guesses he is in his 60s, said he first noticed somebody building on his property about three years ago. He demanded that the developer stop, presenting the document proving his ownership, sealed with his smeared thumbprint.
He filed a legal complaint in 2014, bringing in the informal record of purchase and 12 witnesses who could attest to his ownership. But the witnesses, who were illiterate, didn’t know the rules for providing testimony and were dismissed, according to Norwegian Refugee Council lawyers assisting Papalzai with his case. The judge ruled against him.
The dispute, which was appealed to a higher court and then sent back to the same local judge, remains unresolved. Meanwhile, the developer has erected walls around the farmland, apparently moving forward with plans for more buildings.
Under Afghanistan’s legal system, land disputes are funneled through two channels: traditional “shura” inquests by local district leaders, and government courts.
“If one side is powerful, the decision will go in his favor,” Abdul Wadood Nazemi, a judge in Herat who oversees property deed registrations, said about the informal system. “When a case comes to the court, it will be official and it will be enforced.”
As part of the central government’s effort to improve its system for property ownership, Herat courts are converting informal land records to more reliable legal documents.
Nazemi bristled at the suggestion that corruption is a problem in his court, but he noted that there are informal brokers in Herat who approach unsuspecting claimants with promises of success if they pay a fee. “It happens, but outside the court,” he said.
Juma Khan, an elder in a village outside Herat who serves on the area’s shura council, said he wishes that were true.“If we had an accountable government, that would be good,” he said. “We would be less busy.”
He and other shura members expressed optimism about Herat’s construction boom, seeing it as positive for their grandchildren.
But the local leaders were disdainful of the ethnic Pashtuns and Hazara who have been arriving from war zones and creating new communities here.
Along the path of a new city boulevard being dug, about 1,900 mostly Pashtun families originally from the south live in an illegal mud-hut village known as the Shayidayee encampment. Built on government property, the site is now targeted for 6,500 new homes for local government employees.
Herat officials are working to relocate the displaced Pashtuns to a village created in the dusty mountain foothills about five miles away. But there are just 1,500 homes built for the Pashtuns there, leaving about 400 families without an option. Moreover, the land the government set aside for those homes is also claimed by villagers who have been in the foothills for decades.
On the city’s outskirts, Ghulam Farooq Mubarez, 55, had plans to finally build the house — featuring a long, Iranian-style guest hall — that he and his wife dreamed about for their four children. He has owned his patch of land for 35 years.
The area has lately become a neighborhood of ethnic Hazaras displaced by war.
About two years ago, a group of those refugees built a house and road on a portion of the Mubarez property.
Mubarez sued the group and won earlier this year. But the residents have so far ignored the order — and even taken about $1,000 worth of construction materials that Mubarez had assembled to build his house.
Mubarez sued again, paying more legal fees. His wife urged him to forget about the land. She eventually grew exasperated and left him, taking their children.
“I’ve lost everything,” said Mubarez, who now lives alone in a single room a few miles away, where he still nurtures plans to somehow win his fight.
Mohammad Sharif and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.