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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 October 2018

Afghan peace marchers tired and war-weary after Taliban ends truce

The men make peace call to Taliban as they arrive in Kabul after walking 700 kilometres 

An Afghan peace activist arriving in Kabul on June 18 after marching from hundreds of kilometres from Helmand province, shouts a slogan demanding an end to the war. Wakil Kohsar / AFP Photo
An Afghan peace activist arriving in Kabul on June 18 after marching from hundreds of kilometres from Helmand province, shouts a slogan demanding an end to the war. Wakil Kohsar / AFP Photo

Seventeen-year-old Tahir Khan walks with a limp as he guides the public who have gathered on a cordoned-off street in Kabul to show solidarity with him and his colleagues.

The teenager quit his university degree to join a peace march in which a caravan of up to 80 fellow countrymen walked more than 700 kilometres across the stretch of Afghanistan – from the war-torn province of Helmand to Kabul – to demand an indefinite ceasefire between the government and the Taliban group. The 40-day march encompassed all of the fasting month of Ramadan.

The men arrive after an unprecedented three-day Eid ceasefire in which Taliban fighters enter populated city centres to greet civilians and soldiers. But that truce was shattered on Monday as Taliban fighters ended the truce and launched attacks on security forces across the country.

The men who trekked a Herculean distance express their frustration at the collapsed ceasefire.

“We are so tired of war and we just want this to end,” says Mr Khanm with physical exhaustion evident in his voice. His feet are bandaged after weeks of walking on an empty stomach, with just his plastic sandals and a bag of essentials.

Afghan peace activists complete their march from Helmand to Kabul. Wakil Kohsar / AFP Photo
Afghan peace activists complete their march from Helmand to Kabul. Wakil Kohsar / AFP Photo

The men stopped regularly to spread the message of peace to locals along their route. But that message has not been heeded by the Taliban, which has rebuffed President Ashraf Ghani's offer for a truce extension.

The marchers had invited Taliban members they crossed paths with to join the caravan, but none took up the offer. Despite their frustrations with the Taliban, Mr Khan remains hopeful that one day they will live side-by-side in harmony.

“The Taliban are all tired of war; every Taliban fighter we met wanted the war to end but couldn’t take the first step,” he says. But the Eid ceasefire showed "that peace between both sides is possible. Never before have we seen such an Eid celebration".

Many of the Taliban fighters had not entered Afghanistan's cities for most of the years the country was at war, since the United States invasion of 2001 that toppled the militant group. Afghans now hope that the empathy created by the face-to-face meetings will bring new warmth between the two sides of the conflict.

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One of the marchers, Bacha Khan, takes to the stage at the gathering and calls on the Taliban to lay down its weapons and talk to Mr Ghani's administration.

“They are not a bad government, we are not bad people,” he says as the crowd cheers him on with chants of "Allahu Akbar", or "God is great".

One of those who has come to the gathering to show gratitude to the men said that he dreams of an Afghanistan like he saw during the Eid holiday.

“The last three days we saw what a peaceful Afghanistan could look like and now we want more of that,” said Idrees Stanikzai, a young activist from Kabul, who was disappointed the Taliban refused to extend the ceasefire.

“I met many of the Taliban fighters when they came to Kabul; one of them was visiting his family in Maidan Wardak for the first time in 12 years. He had tears in eyes with the welcome he received from the civilians,” he continued. “They also want to just live in a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan.”

But for civilians, and the marchers who sacrificed the soles of their feet for their country, the wait for an Afghanistan at peace with itself will go on.