Thursday, February 22, 2007

Afghans, Canadian money, does not buy peace of mind

Canadians pay Afghan farmers for land lost
Feb. 22 2007 Associated Press

-- Money, it seems, does not buy peace of mind, especially for war-weary Afghan farmers, who have over the last couple days received C$938,000 in compensation for land bulldozed by Canadians to build a road west of Kandahar.

For refugees returning to their homes in Zhari district after being driven away months ago by heavy fighting, the money is welcome recompense, but there is still a deep sense of unease.

"We're very disappointed about the insecure situation in this region,'' said Bismalah, a farmer with a deeply lined face, who returned to his land three weeks ago.

"The only thing we need is security. This is our wish. If the Canadians give us hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars, but we are living in an insecure situation, we don't like money; we like security.''

In order for Bismalah and roughly 55 other farmers to get their money, they had to pass through a security cordon that included personal searches, armed escorts into the base and a display of Canadian military firepower in the form of a pair of Leopard C2 tanks.

For Shafikahn, a somewhat more affluent landowner, it was an illustration that the peace around here was tenuous at best and the recent decision to flee his home a second time was justified.

"Half of our family is still living in the city so we decided to move back to the city,'' said the remarkably tall farmer who could only guess his age to be between 40 and 48 years.

"The reason is we are scared that maybe somebody will do something evil in this area, open fire or put some mine in this area and we'll be taken and accused for this. For this reason we left this area.''

The construction of Route Summit, a 4½-kilometre stretch of pavement that connects the once-volatile Bazaar-e Panjwaii with the region's main highway, was a military necessity. The old, winding gravel road served as a magnet for Taliban extremists who persistently mined the area.

Three Canadian soldiers died defending the road and its construction crews since building began last fall. And even now as the asphalt is applied the army maintains a series of heavily fortified positions along the route -- strong points it eventually intends to turn over to Afghan security forces.

Arriving back home after spending the better part of four months in rented flats in nearby Kandahar, both farmers said they were surprised to see the road on their property, but have now adopted a community-minded attitude.

"I was a little bit upset with (NATO) when I saw the road on my land, but Afghanistan needs new roads and schools . . . for the public, so I'm very happy,'' Bismalah said through a translator.

The compensation each farmer received varied, depending upon the amount of land they own and how much of it was chewed up by the road and 45 metres of clearance required on each side.

It is the second settlement handed out by Canadians, as farmers along the southern portion of the route, right outside of Bazaar-e Panjwaii, received their payment -- totalling $218,000 -- early in the new year.

With the illegal narcotics industry a backbone of the economy here, there was careful vetting of each application.

"We are not paying for anything other than the loss of use of legal land,'' said Col. Bob Chamberlain, the new commanding officer at the provincial reconstruction team base.

"The government of Afghanistan's policy and the government of Canada's policy is we will not pay for hashish plants or marijuana plants or simple (plots of) sand. It had to be proven agricultural land or residential land and this process is clearly understood by the Afghans.''

In negotiating the rates of payment, Sgt. John Courtney, the local civilian-military affairs team leader, had to live down Taliban propaganda that claimed Canadians wouldn't pay for the land and the reputation of the Soviets, who's heavy-handed expropriation tactics still live in the memory of rural Afghans. The Russians, he was told, would simply take whatever they wanted and dictate the price.

It took months of delicate negotiations to win the trust of not only farmers, but local village elders.

"You need to include the Afghan people and because rightfully so; it's their land and they need to involved in the process,'' said Courtney, whose last official duty before heading home was to watch the envelopes stuffed with Afghan dollars handed over to the farmers.

The compensation was separate from the actual cost of building the road.

The Canadians assumed the roughly C$500,000 for the design and building of the 1.4-kilometre portion running into Panjwaii. The Germans have agreed to spend the equivalent of $1.8 million for the northern portion in Zhari, while the Americans are expected to build the bridge over the Argandaub River.