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Monday, 03.14.2011, 09:21am (GMT)
By Subel Bhandari
Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan - In the north of war-torn Afghanistan, the rule of the Kabul government holds little sway. But the city of Mazar-e Sharif is still safer than most of the country.
Residents of this booming town say its relative peace is largely due to the strong hand of Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, an ex-warlord from the Tajik ethnic group, who make up the region's majority.
But Noor's firm grip on power, which has given the city its stability, has attracted criticism as locals have started to notice the sudden wealth of those close to the governor.
A former commander with the Northern Alliance, the multi-ethnic coalition which held out against Taliban rule until 1997, Noor governs a city where life is visibly safer than elsewhere.
Families stroll through parks in the evening, and security is noticeably lighter. The bazaar is crowded with unhasty shoppers, including many burqa-clad women.
Business is booming and new investments flooding into town. A 5,600-square-metre building site near the airport promises a recreation center and guest house to welcome future visitors.
But the new wealth is not spreading very far from Noor's own circle, critics say.
'All those who are close to him are now rich and they monopolize most of the businesses in the area,' said Omid, a local carpet seller who asked that his second name not be used.
'Everybody fears them, and that is why the city is more secure.'
But cracks are showing also in the security of the city, famous for its carpets and its blue mosque.
Omid, a member of the Pashtun ethnic community that is a majority elsewhere in the country, said he personally does not feel very safe at all.
'We don't feel safe because we are not Tajiks,' who represent 70 per cent of the city's population according to the governor's office.
Mazar-e Sharif has known its share of ethnic violence. Largely spared by the civil war of the 1990s, the capital of Balkh province fell in 1997 to the Taliban, who massacred its Hazara minority.
After the Taliban fled the city ahead of the US invasion in 2001, the province was largely peaceful until last year, when attacks suddenly jumped 107 per cent to 182 in 2010, according to the Afghan non-profit Safety Organization.
Much of the recent violence is power-play along ethnic lines of allegiance, local journalist Baryallai Jalalzai says, as tribal leaders, elders, ex-mujahedin commanders and warlords jostle for money and power.
A total of 70 tribal leaders have been killed since 2001, and 30 in 2010 alone, according to the Pashtun Solidarity Council, a local advocacy group.
So far this year, five local tribal leaders have been reportedly killed in different districts, and others have survived attempts on their lives.
The resurgence in violence has raised concerns among the population.
Jalalzai, 22, an editor of a local Pashtun-language magazine, says the murders of local leaders and elders are a serious threat to peace.
'The Taliban is hardly an issue here,' he says. 'The tribal leaders fight with each other for their own profit.'
And when they kill someone, the blame goes to Taliban, the young editor said. 'It threatens any chance for long-term peace.'
Ethnic tensions have increased since Pashtuns were effectively excluded from political positions in the north, as Balkh elected only one Pashtun among its 11 members of parliament for the lower house.
'Many people [here] think all Pashtuns are Taliban,' says Nisar Ahmad, a 19-year old high school student. 'I feel unsafe. We do not speak Pashtun, our mother tongue, in our family due to fear for our lives.'
Local Pashtun leader Gul Rahman Hamdard says that ethnic tension is 'on the verge of explosion' in his village in Balkh.
Hamdard says the whole Pashtun community was excluded from the distribution of 124,000 hectares of land to other communities recently.
Governor Noor's spokesman refuted the allegations of ethnic discord, saying that everyone in the province lives as peacefully as brothers and sisters.
'Will the father of the house let his sons to live in war? Of course not,' spokesman Muneer Farhad said, referring to Noor as the 'Father of Balkh.'
Balkh police spokesman Sher Mohammad Durani, however, acknowledged that several tribal elders have been killed, mainly over land disputes or personal enmities.