“Our message? It’s very simple: we are tired of war and want peace.” Akbar, a malik (Afghan tribal leader), is almost 60 years old and is by now a familiar face to many Afghans: his “tent for peace,” which he first set up in front of the Security Council of Logar province, then in front of the new parliament in Kabul, has sat for the past few weeks on a stretch of arid land in the park near the Ghazi stadium, across the street from the monumental Id Gah mosque in the Pul-e-Mahmoud neighborhood of the capital. He claims that he does not want to engage in politics, that he has no patrons and represents no particular interests, that he is “only an Afghan and a Muslim who has the future of his nation at heart.”
This future, he says, must be “peace: No more war!” He delivers this slogan with great passion while he shows us the inside of the tent, decorated with black-red-green Afghan flags and filled with mattresses and sheets: “I stand for all those who want to join us to demand an end to the conflict.”
Malik Akbar claims to have erected the “mother of all Afghan ‘tents for peace,’” and asks to be described as “a servant of the people and a bearer of peace.” He believes in the power of the people. “United, we can solve everything.” At the end of May, when we met him, he left us with an encouraging message: “The conflict continues, of course, but there are many small signs pointing to a hope that was not there before. Soon, we will welcome the march for peace from Helmand here in Kabul.”
Since Monday, the Helmand “marchers for peace” have set up only a few dozen meters from the tent of the exuberant malik Akbar. They left on May 12 from Laskhgar Gah, the capital of the turbulent southern province of Helmand, and, after a long and arduous journey of around 700 kilometers on foot, which took 35 days, finally reached Kabul on Monday morning, ending their journey at the Great Mosque of Id Gah. Among them, one can find young students, poets, bodybuilding champions like Zmaray Zaland, workers, farmers, mechanics, pharmacists—people like Ahmad Zahir Senzani, 22, who is blind but managed to make it to the end of the journey with the help of his friend Inamulhaq Khetab.
There were eight of them when they left, but their numbers had grown to around 70 when they arrived in Kabul. The march took them through troubled provinces such as Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, Ghazni and Wardak. Everywhere they went, they were greeted by families and local communities, housed in mosques, and given food and drink at iftar, the traditional time after sunset when Muslims stop fasting in the month of Ramadan. They explained their reasons for going on the march, listened to the stories of the people they met and collected the affection of supporters: they were from different places but had similar stories. Everyone, those who took part in the march and those who didn’t, had lost at least one relative to the hell of war. All, marchers and non-marchers, called out for peace.
As they entered Kabul on Monday, the marchers were greeted with flowers, slogans of encouragement and medical care. Mohammad Iaqbal Khaibar, 27, one of those who were part of this initiative from the beginning, summarized the message they brought with them from Lashkhar Gah to the capital: “The Afghan people have the right to live in peace. We ask that you remain united and believe in the possibility of peace.” They were ridiculed when they first announced their intention to walk to Kabul, the headquarters of the country’s institutions and of those in power who are deaf and corrupt, but Monday they became heroes. They reached their goal, showing that in spite of all the massacres and terrorist attacks, people can still demonstrate. And, indeed, do so for peace.
It is no coincidence that they arrived in Kabul on Monday, in the wake of the three-day truce between the government of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban. The two major domestic players in the conflict had agreed to lay down their weapons for at least three days, moved by pressure from the local population, more and more exasperated and fed up.
Ghani had the merit of initiating this truce, being the first to offer a unilateral ceasefire (which was then extended), but the Taliban reaped the most significant political dividends, since they have shown that they are united, at least militarily, although it remains to be seen if they can maintain the same cohesion when they sit down at the negotiating table, when the allocation of power and interests will be decided among the various shuras (“councils”) that make up the anti-government forces. And they also managed to get concessions from their main enemy, the United States, who had been reluctant so far to wade into the negotiations: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an agreed joint statement with Afghan president Ghani, said that the Trump administration was ready to assume a greater role in the peace process and to discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country. These were crucial words, which directly addressed the demands of the Taliban.
The end of the conflict, however, remains distant, despite the appeals from those marching for peace—who Monday held a public meeting and made a show of great political maturity. They sent out a message to the lower and middle ranks of the Taliban, saying: we have seen how, during these three days of ceasefire, you spent time together with your fellow countrymen, and even with the soldiers, contrary to your leaders’ directives. Stay together with the people, stay in the cities, and do not go back to your trenches.
They had a different message for the politicians of Kabul: “We know well your corruption, your lack of interest in the fate of the people, your grasping after money, goods, capital, contracts and international aid. Give them back to the people, place yourselves at the service of people.”
These were clear messages, explicit and effective. Just as their next planned steps will be: a series of sit-ins in front of the embassies of Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China. Because “this is not our war, but a war imposed by external actors,” as malik Akbar said in his big “tent for peace.”