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Afghan nomads confined to palace ruins after clashes

KABUL (Reuters) - Behind a razor wire fence, in the shadow of ruined balustrades, a few goats graze while children from around 500 families mob a police truck arriving with the day’s second and last handout of rice and beans.

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The hundreds of people who have moved into the remains of Afghanistan’s royal palace are former nomads driven into the protection of the state by vicious ethnic rioting in lands they tried to settle near the capital Kabul.

“They burned our mosque, our homes. We are few and they are many, so the government brought us here for our protection,” said 39 year-old Abdul Malim, who has been living in the ruins with his eight children for several weeks.

Like the others sheltering in the Darulaman palace, he is a Kuchi, a traditionally nomadic cultural group several million strong, most of whom are Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan.

They have clashed with settled farmers all over the country over both grazing lands for their herds -- and as some start to settle down -- claiming space for permanent homes. This time violence began during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

“Five people were wounded in the clash,” said Mohammed Alim, one of the refugees at the palace. “My cousin was slashed across the head and lower back by a knife.”

The Kuchis say they built homes on land that had been their winter pasture for centuries, but families from the Hazara ethnic group living nearby felt they had a stronger claim.

Animosity between the two communities -- which follow different branches of Islam -- grew under the Taliban government when the Shi’ite Hazaras were persecuted by the largely Pashtun regime while Sunni Kuchis mostly prospered or were left in peace.

There are now clashes most years, and they sometimes end in murders. Afghanistan is riven by ethnic divisions that can affect everything from cabinet appointments to business deals, and loyalty to one’s ethnic group often comes before other priorities.

Originally 1,700 families were crammed into the bombed out palace, and the remaining hundreds are barely getting by.

Around the food truck, children jealously guard bowls that have to feed their entire families. Distribution is haphazard; some get just stew, some get rice, a lucky few get both.

“I am hungry a lot of the time,” said 12 year-old Mohammed Tareq, carrying a bowl of rice back to his mother and siblings.

The United Nations has provided blankets and some utensils, as well as make-shift tents erected as schoolrooms between walls scrawled with “Danger UXO” -- unexploded ordinance.

But they are still short of food and warm clothes, and even their guards fear the arrival of the harsh Afghan winter.

“I am worried. Look at the children living here. They are small children, they will die. I put four coats on in winter and have a proper place to shelter, and still its cold,” said Abdul Malik, an Afghan National Army soldier posted at the palace.

Editing by Jonathon Burch