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Afghan Kochi Nomads Untouched by International Politics - 2002-02-03

The international community has largely applauded the end of the Afghanistan's Taleban government because of the repression the group inflicted on people across the nation. But there is one group of Afghans whom the Islamic extremists had very little effect - a nomadic group known as the Kochis.

A Kochi man shepherds a few dozen sheep across the flat, dusty horizon on the outskirts of Kandahar. The sheep pause momentarily here and there, looking for tiny snatches of grass in the largely desolate plains.

It has been a difficult year for shepherd Samath Khan. "I had so many sheeps and goats," he said, "but they died because of the cold. I used to have 250, but now there are just a few dozen."

A few hundred meters away is the nearest of a handful of tents dotting the horizon - the homes of Kochi families.

The tents are a patchwork of what appears to be once-colorful cloth, now faded by southern Afghanistan's strong winds and piercing sun. A goat climbs over a nearby pile of kindling, calmly walking in and out of the tent as if he lives there. A handful of children afraid of a foreigner in their midst scamper away to hide.

Inside one tent, a blackened kettle sits above a small fire fueled by straw clouding the air with smoke. Two women knead bread dough and make tea while chatting with their another relative.

The United Nations estimates that more than 2.5 million Kochi people migrate throughout Afghanistan and into parts of southern Pakistan.

Living as subsistence farmers in remote areas, for decades the Kochis remained untouched by international politics and Afghanistan's Taleban regime, a fact echoed by one of the women, Anara Hayub. "We are Kochi people, we aren't concerned with the government because we migrate," she said. "Sometimes we're here, sometimes we're in Pakistan. We pray to have rainfall for our animals."

Ms. Anara's face is decorated with traditional Kochi tattoos. Unlike other Afghan women, Taleban never tried to force the Kochis to wear the burqa a long shawl that covers a woman's entire face and body.

But three years of drought have forced Ms. Anara and her family to stop migrating and to temporarily settle outside Kandahar, the southern Afghan city Taleban made its headquarters. And the Kochis were forced somewhat to adapt. She says, "most of the time, day and night we're near our tent. We don't go anywhere else. If we need to go into the city, we wear a burqa."

United Nations officials say it was that drought that wrenched the Kochis from their centuries-old tradition of migration into the complexities modern times. In order to survive, some Kochi men went into the city to work as laborers. Some women became beggars.

After fleeing into the hills to escape the U.S.-led bombing near Kandahar, the Kochis are aware of the installation of Afghanistan's new interim administration. Their demands for the government remain simple. As one woman put it: "We are happy to have a new government and we hope that they will bring peace. We do not know what they would do for us, but we hope they do something."

But for the moment, she says, the Kochis will continue to work and live the way they have done for years.