After 17 Years of War, A Peace Movement Grows in Afghanistan
With every step, the blisters burned.
After three days of walking barefoot alongside a highway from Kabul with about 50 other peace activists, Abdul Malik Hamdard, a computer teacher, had only gotten as far as this farming village about 40 miles north of the capital. But he had a point to make, and he said he planned to keep going no matter how much his feet hurt.
"War kills Afghan people every day," said Hamdard, 27, as the group stopped to rest in a mosque one day earlier this month. He said he lost three brothers to conflict in the past 25 years. "We will walk from Kabul to Mazar for peace," he said, referring to the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, about 200 miles north.
At the moment, the group's new effort seems both quixotic and timely. In the past several weeks, a burst of insurgent violence has flared across the country, most recently a major ground assault by the Taliban on the southeastern city of Ghazni that killed at least 120 people and a suicide bombing in Kabul by the IS militia that claimed at least 34 lives.
The renewed bloodshed has dampened the hopes for breakthrough in the conflict that followed the June ceasefire and a high-level meeting between US diplomats and Taliban representatives in July. But the peace marchers said these setbacks make their mission more relevant than ever.
The group originally formed in southern Helmand province after a bombing in March, staging peaceful protests there. Then in May and June, eight of its members walked more than 300 miles to Kabul to persuade the government to negotiate with Taliban insurgents. Along the way, they braved scorching heat and dust storms, but their numbers grew to more than 100. Sometimes, they said they encountered Taliban fighters and begged them to end the war.
In Kabul, the group set up tents outside the embassies of Pakistan, the United States and other countries, meeting with diplomats and asking them to step up support for a peace deal. They also met with Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, calling on them to take "practical steps" to end the war.
But the group's leaders said the meetings produced no results, so they decided to take up their peace march again, with almost half of the activists walking barefoot.
"I told them that Afghans have lost trust in you entirely. You only made promises in 17 years. We have not seen practical steps towards peace," said Mohammad Iqbal Khaybar, 27, the leader of the movement, who previously ran a private medical clinic in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand.
Of those who criticise the marchers for walking barefoot, Khaybar said, "We harm ourselves to make you aware. Why are you silent?"
'Peace at any cost'
Although most of the marchers are young, some of the older ones are especially motivated by memories of life before their country was torn apart by conflict. Mohammad Seraj, 55, recalled tranquil days in Helmand before the Soviet invasion and civil war of the 1980s. He and his family fled to Iran for nearly 30 years â€” only to return to a country at war again.
"Afghanistan is a good place without war. War is ugly," Seraj said. "We want peace at any cost."
Since the formation of the Helmand peace movement, others have sprung up in different areas of the country, holding rallies and sit-ins and calling on all warring parties to hold peace talks. Ghani has praised their efforts, but Taliban officials dismissed them in June as conspiracies and foreign plots.
Despite the recent upsurge in violence, the peace activists are still hoping a second ceasefire will take place next week during the three-day Muslim holiday known as Eidul Azha.
In a tweet this week, activist Bacha Khan Muladad wrote, "Every day dozens of young Afghans are dying, this has to stop, we need to stop this 4 decades old cycle of violence or else [we] will not stop walking. #StopWar."
As the marchers walked along the highway one recent day, a car drove slowly ahead, broadcasting a Persian-language song for peace.
An 11-year-old boy, whose mother had died in a rocket attack in Logar province, walked just behind it. At one point, a white dog began following the group and stayed with them for miles. Some of the marchers said they hoped it would bring them luck.