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A Simple -- if Dusty -- Life for Afghan Nomads


SHOMALI VALLEY, Afghanistan — Standing in the ruins of a former Afghan army post, Hazrat Gul, a 35-year-old Kuchi tribesman, balances himself on one good prosthetic leg and a pair of crutches as he watches his small flock of sheep.

Nine years ago, not far from where he stands, Gul stepped on a land mine while tending a flock in this valley that Afghans call Dashti Shimtala, "desert of grass." Both his legs were blown off.

Ringed by jagged mountains, the Shomali Valley is 19 miles from the noise and confusion of the capital, Kabul. Dashti Shimtala has been a grazing stop for Afghanistan's nomads and the Gul clan for as long as anyone can remember.

Today, four years of drought have made the sea of grass mostly dust. Nearby streams are paths of dry stones. Unexploded land mines remain a danger across the harsh landscape.

Clouds of dust whip over and through Gul's tent. Inside, seven daughters, ranging in age from 1 to 13, wait out the storm. Outside, Gul and his sons keep watch over the sheep.

"Before the drought, we had 200, 300 sheep. Now there are 20 left," Gul said.

The Kuchis are one of the many ethnic tribes in Afghanistan. For centuries, they have wandered in the region along the frontier with Pakistan.

Life is simple. Keep moving, searching for any pasture they can find for their animals. It takes three hours to pack the tent and gather the few possessions. Donkeys or camels carry the load.

There is no education for most Kuchi children or basic health care. The Kuchis have no television or Internet, and show little interest in what might be happening beyond the horizon.

"Sept. 11, World Trade Center, what is that?" Gul said when asked about the events that led to the fighting that drove out the Taliban regime.

Standing nearby, listening to the conversation, Lal Mohammad, a weathered Kuchi of 85, joins in while bracing against a new cloud of dust.

"What does any of this matter?" he asked. "We are Kuchis; we are free."

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