Draped in a blue burqa, Soraya sobs inside a tattered tent at a swelling makeshift camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan’s northern province of Balkh.
Her family fled their village after her father, an impoverished laborer who had previously served in the Afghan National Army, was gunned down last week by suspected Taliban fighters in Balkh's Kishindih district.
“He was on his way to work when he was attacked by gunmen,” the 18-year-old, who only goes by one name, says. “He was shot four times.”
Desperate for an end to the incessant fighting, Soraya says she is willing to forgive the Taliban if ongoing talks between the hard-line militants and the Afghan government bring a peace settlement.
“I don’t want any more children to lose their fathers,” she says, gripping her younger sister. “I don’t want us to live under these tents. It’s enough!”
But while she and some others say they are ready to forgive and move on, many war victims are calling for their rights and demands to be included within any eventual peace deal.
Among them is Azharuddin Badakhshi, who has lost two brothers -- a soldier and a police officer -- in three years.
One was killed when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb in the southern province of Kandahar. The other was shot dead during clashes with the Taliban in the family’s home province of Badakhshan, in northern Afghanistan.
“Almost every Afghan household has lost someone,” says Badakhshi, who lives near the provincial capital, Faizabad.
Badakhshi, a middle-aged man sporting a scarf and traditional clothes, says that for Afghans to accept a peace deal with the Taliban there must be “a real and just peace.”
He says that means representing the interests of all segments of society, including war victims, in peace talks.
Otherwise, he says, there will be peace in name only.
‘Rampant Culture Of Impunity’
During the past 19 years of war, human rights groups have documented crimes by all sides.
The Taliban and other militant groups have been accused of targeted attacks on civilians; Afghan security forces have been suspected of torture, rape, and enforced disappearances; and the U.S. military and CIA have been accused of torture.
But as the warring Afghan parties negotiate a peace deal aimed at ending the conflict, the war’s victims say their rights and grievances have been ignored.
The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 Afghan civilians have been killed or wounded since 2009, when it began documenting casualties. Afghan rights groups say the death toll from the conflict that began with the U.S.-led invasion in response to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 is much higher.
The intra-Afghan talks that followed a U.S.-Taliban agreement in February have failed to include meaningful participation by victims’ groups, who have urged the Taliban and the Afghan government to acknowledge crimes committed during the conflict and address the grievances and humanitarian needs of war victims.
Human rights campaigners say any peace deal is unsustainable if it fails to address past crimes -- one of the key drivers of over 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan.
But in a country with an ingrained culture of impunity, abusers in positions of power, and mounting pressure to end the war, victims acknowledge there will be pressure to bury the past.
“Afghanistan doesn't have a strong history of attending to victims' rights in the political processes,” says Shaharzad Akbar, the head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).
“The lack of attention to issues of justice in the past and present has meant a rampant culture of impunity that has impacted people's trust in government and has empowered people with troubling human rights records,” she adds. “If we move forward with the same approach, sustainable peace will not become a reality.”
A ‘Victim-Centered’ Peace Process
The United Nations was involved in a process aimed at bringing transitional justice after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. That effort sought to first map grave rights abuses and then prosecute some of the leading violators.
But the initiative failed because deals were cut with former warlords, many of them former members of the mujahedin, the U.S.-backed rebels who fought Soviet forces in the 1980s before turning on each other in a devastating civil war in the 1990s.
Experts say Western sponsors also failed to pressure Afghan authorities to go after rights abusers, some of whom were given positions of power.
Afghan human rights campaigners and victims' groups see the ongoing peace talks as a historic opportunity to right the wrongs of the past.
“The entire peace process must be victim-centered, just, and aimed at healing the wounds of victims of war and avoiding future recurrence of violence and crime,” the National Victim-Centered Network, a victims group, said soon after the current peace talks began on September 12.
The Transitional Justice Coordination Group (TJCG), an alliance of over 20 individuals and organizations including victims groups, said war victims were “one of the largest constituencies in the country” and they should be represented accordingly.
The groups have called for direct testimony from victims for the warring sides and a committee representing victims who would be part of the formal peace negotiations.
Forgive And Forget?
But so far there have been few signs that the Taliban or the Afghan government is listening.
In a blow to victims, President Ashraf Ghani suggested last month that Afghanistan could use the Spanish model to deal with its bloody past.
After the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain adopted the so-called Pact of Forgetting, choosing to move on rather than seek justice. Spain adopted an amnesty law that made it extremely difficult to prosecute the human rights abuses of Franco’s brutal regime, which was responsible for the deaths and torture of thousands of people.
Ghani said that “in the modern history of Afghanistan, we fought against each other and killed each other, but tomorrow we need to accept each other as brothers and sisters,” adding that the past must not jeopardize the country’s future.
In a further blow to victims, Ghani controversially freed over 5,000 Taliban prisoners, a key demand of the insurgents stemming from the U.S.-Taliban deal, before the peace talks could even begin. The inmates included hundreds accused of involvement in high-profile militant attacks that killed hundreds of civilians.
Despite the president’s remarks, there is a glimmer of hope, says Ehsan Qaane, a researcher at the independent Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“The Ministry of Peace and members of the Afghan negotiating team have been quietly creating the first rudimentary structures to start including victims’ representation and consultation,” Qaane says.
But he laments that those efforts “fall well short” of proposals from victims and human rights groups.
Qaane says such contradictions could be the result of divisions within the government, a lack of interest from the government, or external pressure “from third parties, like the U.S. in the case of the Taliban prisoners’ release.”
The Taliban, meanwhile, has made no public remarks on the inclusion of war victims in peace talks.
The Taliban’s bilateral peace deal with the United States, signed in February, does not promise accountability for the victims of war crimes allegedly committed by the militant group.
Meanwhile, the United States, which led the international coalition that was the other major party to the war, has voiced fierce opposition to attempts by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate U.S. troops and intelligence officials for possible war crimes in Afghanistan.
The Trump administration has imposed sanctions on the chief prosecutor of the ICC, which the United States has never joined, and one of her top aides for continuing its investigation.
A 2016 report from the ICC alleged that there was a reasonable basis to believe U.S. military personnel and CIA operatives "committed acts of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, rape, and sexual violence against conflict-related detainees” in secret detention facilities in Afghanistan, Poland, Romania, and Lithuania -- all countries that are members of the court.
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