Bombs affect everyone equally

There are tales of peddler-nomads stealing children.

Marleen van Wesel

Anthropologist Annika Schmeding spent some time with the Kochis, an Afghan tribe of nomads protected by that country’s constitution. "Other nomadic groups are not even socially accepted as Afghans."

"I regularly came across nomads in Kabul", recalls Annika Schmeding (28). "Between doing my Bachelor’s and my Master’s courses, I spent a year working in Afghanistan on a project for the government. I grew curious: what was their life normally like? And in wartime?"

Schmeding did her Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology in Berlin and came to Leiden for a Research Master’s in Middle Eastern Area Studies. She didn’t have any difficulty choosing a subject for her dissertation: the Kochis, a nomadic tribe for whom a special section has been included in the Afghan constitution to improve their vulnerable position. The LUF (Leiden University Fund) awarded her work with the Leiden University Dissertation Prize.

Following her literature research, she went to Kabul with her boyfriend, a Canadian journalist. "You usually live in large compounds with guards and thick walls, but we lived in an apartment, among Afghans and a couple of American teachers." Even though she was close to the population, her position was different. "I had to live as invisibly as possible and stay away from large military sites and other potential targets for attacks. Obviously, bombs affect everyone equally, but for foreigners, there is always the added danger of kidnapping. I had to make other adjustments too: being German, it took some getting used to meetings that went on and on, or were cancelled. Sometimes I had to reschedule all the interviews I had planned for one day."

Former colleagues helped her contact members of parliament. "And they in turn introduced me to Kochis. I spent three months in a refugee camp for a children’s aid organisation too, where many former nomads had ended up. When I travelled, I talked to people I thought might be nomads because of their sheep and tents. That was more difficult because nobody could introduce me."

Initially, she wanted to work with a think tank. "I could learn a lot from their methods and they thought my research was interesting." Extremely interesting, in fact: she was asked to send her CV and her research so far. "After two months, they suddenly published a report with all my research results …"

That forced her to take a new angle: she concentrated on other nomadic groups, often hawkers or beggars, as well as the Kochis, who move around with their sheep. "The difference between the groups isn’t simply a matter of rich and poor. Among themselves, the nomads are not all alike either. While many Kochis still face poverty issues, they have more chances and have parliamentary representation. The other nomadic groups are not even socially accepted as Afghans."

That view is influenced by the position of their women: "The women trade at the bazaars, which are regarded by most other Afghans as male-dominated places, so they are branded as loose women. Besides, there are tales of peddler-nomads stealing children and forcing them to work for them." Can’t anything be done about that? "That would mean changing not only the rules, but also the attitudes of the Afghans and I, as an anthropologist, am disinclined to dabble in the murky water of politics."

Schmeding won the IIAS Master’s Thesis Prize as well as the LUF Prize, introduced by Minerva alumni from 1957 and 1961. She will be leaving for Afghanistan again in the spring for her PhD research at the University of Boston. "I still have to decide on the exact subject of my research, but it will certainly be about Afghanistan, preferably something to do with nomads again."

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