A ‘peace movement’ in the time of war

Published - June 15, 2019 09:03 pm IST

About a year ago, Tahir Khan, then 17, from the southern Afghan province of Helmand, joined a caravan of about 80 countrymen and marched over 700 km to Kabul. Their clarion call was: “End the war in Afghanistan.”

The group of Afghan men traversed, many barefoot, the breadth of the country during a 60-day hike, halting only to rest and sleep. Their labour for peace, in a country torn by decades of war, won them many hearts and headlines. These endeavours also saw some success when the Taliban declared a temporary three-day ceasefire during Id last year. But little has changed for the country since then.

This year, once again, ahead of Id, Mr. Khan joined the same band of men — their mission now dubbed the “People’s Peace Movement” (PPM). On May 30, fasting for Ramzan, and at times barefoot, they walked towards the Taliban-controlled territories in southern Afghanistan to urge the insurgents to agree to another ceasefire, and possibly to an end to the war. “We went to share our pain with them. We wanted to sit and talk to them, and ask why couldn’t we solve this conflict,” Mr. Khan, who was born in the post-Taliban era and is as old as America’s war in his country, told this reporter.

Mr. Khan’s province is among those where the Taliban’s hold is strong. Growing up in such a region, he has not known a life away from death and violence. “The world runs on dreams, but here [in Afghanistan] dreams just die,” Mr. Khan, who also aspires to be a journalist, said. “Because of the war, I haven’t been able to seek higher education, nor are there any qualified teachers and schools around here. The war has stopped me from growing. How good would it be if there was no war and I could study further and be a political journalist,” he wondered.

In the last days of Ramzan this year, the nation once again followed the journey of Mr. Khan — and that of 27 other Afghan men — through news and social media, as they marched into Musa Qala in Helmand. However, once the marchers entered the Taliban territory on June 3, a battle between the Afghan forces and the Taliban ensued. Friends and well-wishers of the PPM worried for the safety of its members and feared that they had been taken hostage by the very group they sought to talk peace with.

However, a few days later, on June 7, PPM spokesperson Bismillah Watandost took to social media to inform that they had not been abducted, but were in fact held in a safe place during the crossfire. “The Taliban behaved with us very well because we went to a Pashtun home and we went for a jirga (meeting),” Mr. Khan explained, pointing out that the ethnic code of Pashtunwali espoused by the Taliban ensured that they were not abducted or hurt.

“The Taliban didn’t arrest us. Our phones weren’t working there so that is why some reporters said that the Taliban kidnapped us,” clarified Mr. Khan.

‘An outsider’s war’

They appealed to the Taliban for peace. “We told them, ‘this war does not belong to us. It is an outsider’s war; you and I are dying in it, we should end it.’ We urged the Taliban to talk to Afghans about peace because we are the ones suffering the most,” Mr. Khan said.

The Taliban leadership has met with the U.S. administration over several rounds of talks in the last few months in a bid to end the conflict. However, it has categorically refused to meet the Afghan government. The insurgents had little reprieve to offer the peace Ambassadors in return, except a promise to communicate the message of the Afghan people. “The Taliban leaders spoke to us and heard our demands. They heard our pain and they promised to pass on our message to their leaders who represent their groups,” Mr. Khan informed.

However, it was evident to Mr. Khan that the Taliban fighters on the ground, some of them just as old as himself, were exhausted from the long-drawn war.

“They badly want to end the war and they are tired. You can see on their forehead that they are thirsty for peace,” he said, adding that the Taliban fighters had become “soft”. “We could feel their pain. Their pain is the same as the pain of the Afghans who live in the cities.”

( Ruchi Kumar is a journalist based in Kabul. )

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