SAROBI, AFGHANISTAN — Following the winding road cut into cliffs along the Kabul River, the shepherds lead their flocks to warmer pastures for the winter. Not much has changed in this age-old annual migration of Afghanistan's nomadic people - popularly called Kuchis - a continuation of perhaps thousands of years of pastoral traditions and culture. But after 23 years of war and five years of persistent drought, the Kuchi way of life perhaps has never been as endangered as it is today.
Sajad Mohammad, a Kuchi elder, and his family of 30 are midway on their 250-mile trek from the Hazarajat highlands to Laghman Province, where they graze their flocks during the winter months. As if on cue, the family's unnamed dog growls at some visitors.
"At the beginning of time we were Kuchis, and we will die Kuchis," Mr. Mohammad says with a sigh. "We don't know any other life."
Long before there was a nation state called Afghanistan, there were Kuchis, traveling a vast land that is hospitable only part of the time. The rhythms and traditions of nomadic culture have been so prevalent that they have crept into the habits and thoughts of even the most urbane corners of Kabul. Most Afghans of Pashtun heritage and many Afghans from ethnic minorities can trace their lineage to nomadic ancestors.
Even the Afghan kings used to maintain the Kuchi habit of migration. Until the British colonists arrived in neighboring India, Afghan kings used to maintain two capitals: one in Kabul for the summer months, the other in Peshawar in the colder months.
But after a generation of war that killed at least 1 million Afghans and left countless land mines across the country, migration has become a risky venture. Nobody knows how many Kuchis died in battles and ambushes during the past two decades. Nobody knows how many continue to die today by stepping on land mines or picking up unexploded ordnance in remote areas.
"When I first came here in the 1970s, you'd see massive numbers of black tents in the countryside, and thousands of sheep," says David Edwards, an expert on Afghan culture at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. "I don't think you'll ever see a return to those days, in part because of war, in part because of drought, and in part because of land mines." While Mr. Edwards says there will always be nomads in Afghanistan, the Kuchis may be most threatened by something most Afghans crave: good roads.
"Nomads move from place to place to take advantage of price advantages, or to sell their flocks or other products where they are needed most," he says. "As distances are reduced because of telecommunications, and as better roads make it easier to move products ... the underlying advantage of nomadic commerce is removed."
As late as 1977, Kuchis numbered about 2 million, 16 percent of the population, but no proper surveys have been conducted recently. In good times, each family maintained hundreds of sheep and goats. But in times of drought and war, Kuchis lost their flocks and livelihoods. Many were forced to make their homes in the hot, unfamiliar plains of Pakistan or Iran. Today, Kuchis find it hard to earn enough to start new flocks.
High on the slope of the canyon on the road to Laghman Province, Mohammad's son, Zabid, walks and whistles to the 150 or so sheep under his care. Night is falling, and he looks for a place to sleep, covered only by a thin blanket.
A visitor notes they are walking alongside a field lined with red-painted rocks. Zabid says he knows the red rocks are a warning of land mines. One killed a family camel last year. But "generally we don't know if a place is safe or not, we go where God wishes," he says. "And the sheep, they are just animals, they go where they wish."
Down the road, a Kuchi elder named Didaar is preparing his family and flock for a short nap. Around 2 a.m., they will rise with the light of the moon and travel the road to Laghman Province when it is free of cars.
His green Army jacket is worn at the cuffs. His toes poke out of his tennis shoes that must have been white sometime in the 1980s. "If I had land, I would be like you," he says with a broad grin. "I could go to school, read something in a book. All that we have is dust. We have cold at night. And if it rains, we all sleep in the same tent, including the animals."
"But if we gave up this life, what would you do?" he adds. "If we don't graze our animals, who is going to provide meat in the cities?... You need us."