Stateless Afghan tribe struggling to survive coronavirus impact

Sidelined by society, the matriarchal Chori Forosh tribe is denied citizenship by the government, leaving them cut off from essential healthcare and services during the Covid-19 crisis

A jogi child plays outside his house in the tribal village in Aybak city of northern Samangan province. Lack of national identity has deprived many Jogi children of education opportunities, pushing them further into poverty. Hikmat Noori for The National
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Every morning, for as long as she can remember, 60-year-old Yasmin has come to the gates of the historical Blue Mosque in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, carrying thousands of colourful bangles clumsily wrapped in a large sheet.

She spreads the sheet on the floor outside the walls of the 800-year-old mosque and displays the bangles by colour and origin. “We sell two types of choris [bangles], this one is from Lahore and the shiny one comes from India. We buy them wholesale and sell them for 40 Afghanis [$0.50] for a dozen,” says Yasmin, who only goes by one name. “This has been the business of our ancestral tribes for centuries, and which is why they call us chori foroush [bangle sellers].”

In a deeply patriarchal society such as Afghanistan, the women of this tribe stand out for being independent matriarchs of their family units while the men usually adopt the role of caretakers. But they face a particular set of challenges.

Despite being a familiar sight in the Afghan city, Yasmin and her fellow bangle sellers are not Afghans themselves. In fact, the chori foroushalso known as Jogis, are a previously nomadic tribe that settled in parts of Afghanistan a little over a century ago. They do not belong to any country, and as such are a stateless minority.

“Our ancestors emigrated from Bukhara Sharif in Uzbekistan centuries ago, but now we are proud Afghans. I am born and raised in this country, and yet I am treated like prisoner in my own country,” says 70-year-old Guljan, a Jogi woman who sells bangles and reads palms – another practice associated with the community.

Bangles sold by the Jogi women, who face harassment and discrimination for being breadwinners of their families, in an otherwise deeply patriarchal society. Hikmat Noori for The National

While there is no accurate population data available on the Jogis, academic groups have estimated there are 20,000 to 30,000 members living across northern Afghanistan. Due to their central Asian origins and distinct culture that contrasts sharply with Afghanistan’s largely patriarchal society, the tribes have long suffered discrimination.

“The Jogis are an oppressed minority in Afghanistan and are discriminated against, not just from the government but also society which doesn’t treat them with respect,” said Hakim Hakimi, an Afghan sociologist who worked with the Jogis in the early 1970s.

“It is due to their particular culture and also because of their poor economic conditions [that] they engage in certain professions not considered respectable in Afghan society,” he explained, adding that there is an unsubstantiated belief that Jogi women work as sex workers.

Added to this, the nomadic nature of their tribes has made it harder to document their presence. “While consecutive governments failed to ensure that the Jogis are included in our national census, the Jogis themselves didn’t make an effort in pre-war Afghanistan to apply," Mr Hakimi said.

As a result, they have never been granted Afghan citizenship and are denied access to state services and economic opportunities, causing widespread poverty, which has increased during decades of war in Afghanistan.

Jogi women, who are the primary breadwinners in the Jogi families, sell choris (bangles) to earn a living, earning the tribe the name of chori foroush (bangle sellers). Other Jogi women even provide fortune-telling services. Hikmat Noori for The National

While many Jogis claim to have fought alongside the Mujahideen during the Soviet invasion, they were disappointed to find that the new government, established after the fall of the Taliban, failed to include them in the constitution as a minority group.

The exclusion has increased discrimination and worsened their struggle for citizenship, leaving them caught in a bureaucratic dilemma.

“For decades, we have been fighting to get a tazkira [national ID card], so we can be recognised as Afghans. But to get a tazkira, we have to show that either our father or grandfather or uncles have had one. But since no one in our tribe was ever issued an ID, how can we get one,” Guljan says.

Officials at the Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs said they did not have any tribe classified as Jogis registered with them or in the constitution so could not provide support. "We cannot comment on any unregistered tribe," Sayed Nazim Saeedi, deputy spokesperson at the ministry, told The National, adding that the Jogis were perhaps "self-made and pretending" to be a tribe that does not exist.

A cluster of mud homes, in Aybak city of northern Samangan province, that make up the village of the formerly-nomadic Jogi tribes of Afghanistan. The tribe of some 30,000 strong, is not recognised by the Afghan constitution, and members are stateless without access to any national ID. As a result, they are unable to seek social and political benefits, leaving the community in utter poverty. Hikmat Noori for The National

“It is possible they are a sub-tribe of a larger tribe, but we don’t have them registered with the ministry,” he said.

Irrespective of past failures, the current government needs to act urgently to protect the interests of the tribe, Mr Hakimi said. “We live in the 21st century and there is no excuse to deny them their Afghan identity. The government is obligated to provide them support including citizenship and basic rights."

Lack of citizenship creates innumerable problems for the community, who are unable to access education or own land and businesses. “Our kids can’t enrol in public school because we don’t have IDs. Some of them study at local madrassas [religious schools] which don’t ask for IDs but otherwise, many in our community are illiterate,” said Guljan.

According to a 2011 study, in Mazar-e-Sharif alone, 83 per cent of Jogi children are out of school.

The lack of national identity was felt particularly strongly by the community at the height of the Covid-19 crisis when their daily earnings plummeted following a nationwide lockdown.

“This is the only income we have but when everything shut overnight and we were not allowed to step out of the house to work, we could not feed our families,” Yasmin said.

Many in the tribe were infected by the virus but could not seek professional help, or afford medication. Desperate for survival, Yasmin admits she would sneak out despite the quarantine in the hopes of making a sale to support the family.

“Some people told us that the government was distributing money and naan [bread], but we couldn’t even claim those because you have to show the tazkira to avail those schemes and aid. We had to rely on the charity of the people,” Guljan said.

Without identity papers, the Jogis remain cut off from any aid or support projects launched to combat the increase in poverty during the Covid crisis and many are struggling to survive.

“We are treated as outsiders in a country where our ancestors were born and lived,” Guljan said.