Few places can be more symbolic for demanding peace than a road divided between the Afghan government forces and the Taliban in one of Afghanistan’s most volatile provinces.
Kabul and the insurgents have fought hard over the southern province of Helmand, where government authority has largely shrunk to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, a city of some 300,000 residents.
A handful of young Afghan activists are now camped on the road connecting Lashkar Gah to the neighboring rural district of Nawa, where Taliban insurgents frequently clash with Afghan security forces.
Wearing blue vests that prominently display parts of a Koranic verse telling Muslims that “reconciliation is better,” they are urging people traveling the road to sign long sheets of white paper and also leave their cellphone numbers.
“We have begun this process to collect 5 million signatures from across Afghanistan to tell the world that Afghans are a peaceful people but are now victims of an imposed war,” says Mohammad Hirman, one of the organizers. “We want to convey our message to the world by sending these signatures to various parliaments and the embassies representing their countries in Kabul.”
The campaign complements an ongoing peace march that saw a handful of Helmand activists trek for nearly a month to reach Kabul, some 700 kilometers away. After camping outside the United Nations office and the Russian and U.S. embassies, the marchers, formally called the People’s Peace Movement, now want to protest in front of the Iranian and Pakistani embassies as well as send peace envoys to Taliban-controlled regions.
Encouraged by a welcoming response from a war-weary population, Helmand activists are determined to collect signatures from the Taliban-controlled regions.
“We are trying to collect signatures from everywhere in Helmand — both the regions controlled by the government and its armed opposition,” activist Haji Mohammad Khan Haqparast told Radio Free Afghanistan.
The Taliban, however, are skeptical. “We ask clerics, activists, and marchers deceived in the name of peace: Why are you so deaf, blind, and insensitive that you cannot even comment on the real cause of conflict and war in Afghanistan?” asked a recent article on the insurgent Voice Of Jihad website. “Don’t they understand that without the American occupation in Afghanistan and in the presence of a pure Islamic system, what can prompt the Taliban and the mujahedin to continue fighting?”
But few in Helmand are willing to buy the insurgents’ rhetoric. A young man who signed the petition on the way to his home in the Taliban-controlled part of Nawa said they are determined to see the fighting end because it brings nothing but misery.
Requesting anonymity because of possible Taliban reprisals, he said that Afghans need to now unite behind a demand for peace.
“For nearly 40 years, we have only suffered. We have only seen our loved ones being orphaned and widowed,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.