Under the banner of the previously unknown People’s Movement, scores of demonstrators took part in the fifth day of a sit-in protest in Lashkar Gah. The dusty city of an estimated 200,000 residents serves as the capital of the beleaguered southern province of Helmand, where Taliban attacks and counterterrorism sweeps by Afghan and international troops are frequent.
“We first want to push the government to agree to a ceasefire by pressing them for suspending ongoing and new offensives against the insurgents,” Qais Azami, a young organizer of the protest, told Radio Free Afghanistan on March 28.
Azami and his colleagues began protesting on March 24 following a bomb attack on a wrestling match in Lashkar Gah. The March 23 attack killed 14 people and injured more than 40. Many of the victims, including children, were burned beyond recognition.
“We first want to know if the government is ready to conclude peace. We want their written guarantees before setting off on a protest march,” Azami said, alluding to their plan to hold a “long march” to the Taliban stronghold of Musa Qala to compel the insurgents to announce a ceasefire.
The northern Helmand town of Musa Qala, nearly 100 kilometers from Lashkar Gah, is a major bastion of the Taliban and is considered a key hub for the drug trade that partly bankrolls their insurgency.
Scores of women joined the protest on March 27. Most were widows or mothers who had lost their husbands or children in the violence.
“Every mother who is here brings the pain and suffering they have endured after losing their sons, husbands, and other relatives,” protester Hassina Ahsas said. “We want to put an end to our suffering and do not want to see our sisters sharing our fate in the future.”
She said Helmand’s women are adamant about joining their brothers, fathers, and husbands in the popular struggle for peace. “We will be joining you in marching for peace,” she said.
Khyal Bibi, an elderly protester, says she lost five children and her husband in the fighting in Helmand.
“We want this dark night of war to end soon,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “For the sake of God and his holy book, Quran, please stop this violence and conclude peace.”
Iqbal Khyber, an organizer of the protest, said they will embark on a march toward Musa Qala soon after securing ceasefire guarantees from the government.
“The only aim of the sit-in is to stop fighting from both sides,” he told the New York Times. “The Taliban should not send bombers, and the government should not drop bombs on them.”
Safiullah Sarwar, another organizer of the protest, said they have received encouraging messages from the Taliban.
“We have received messages from some local Taliban who welcome our initiative,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan, adding that their protest is attracting widespread support from a war-weary population.
“All segments of the society — including religious scholars, tribal leaders, women, and youth — have backed us,” he said.
In a statement sent to journalists on March 28, purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousaf Ahmadi asked the protesters to first contact the U.S. forces to ensure a ceasefire because, in his view, their aggression forced the Taliban to wage war.
The statement is in line with longstanding Taliban positions. The insurgents refuse to talk with the Afghan government and instead demand that only Washington should negotiate with them directly about the withdrawal of foreign forces.
Although the Afghan government has not commented on the sit-in, Afghan lawmakers have welcomed the protest.
“We welcome these voices raised for peace in Helmand, and we need to replicate them across Afghanistan,” lawmaker Najiba Hussaini told the Senate, or upper house of the Afghan Parliament. “We need to first generate an Afghan consensus over peace. So long as we lack that consensus, we cannot expect others to contribute to peace.”
Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province, borders Pakistan. The vast agricultural region has been a key bastion of the Taliban, who have used the narcotic trade to fund their war and have recruited young Helmandis to fight for them.
The region’s predominant ethnic Pashtun population has endured violence, displacement, oppression, poverty, and intimidation over the nearly 40 years of war in Afghanistan, which began with the Soviet occupation of the country in late 1979 following a communist coup in April 1978.
The protest in Helmand reflects widespread resentment against war and violence across Afghanistan. It resembles a similar but much bigger protest in neighboring Pakistan in which Pashtuns staged a 10-day protest in the capital, Islamabad, to demand security and rights. The protest emerged from the war-ravaged Waziristan region and has become the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, or Movement for the Protection of Pashtuns in the country.
In Helmand, Azami and other young organizers are adamant they have chosen the right path.
“We are not demanding peace from [neighboring] Pakistan or the United States, but we will keep on raising our voice to conclude peace with our brothers,” he said.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee’s reporting from Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan.
-The story first appeared on RFE/RL’s Gandhara