World News

Afghan Hunger Strikers Demand Cease-Fire: ‘Our Blood Is Finished’

Posted March 29, 2018 4:36 p.m. EDT

KABUL, Afghanistan — Within 24 hours of a recent suicide bombing in Helmand province, which added at least 14 names to the long list of the dead in a bitterly contested corner of Afghanistan, a group of local activists began a sit-in at the site of the carnage.

In their moment of anger and sorrow, they asked not for revenge, but for peace.

Over the following days, mothers and fathers of victims came to pour out their hearts and to support the protest, in a tent pitched near the field in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, where last week a suicide bomber drove a car full of explosives into a crowd leaving a wrestling match. Emboldened, the protest organizers announced a “long march” to bring the message of peace to the Taliban, who control much of the province.

On Thursday, after the Taliban told them not to come, the activists in the tent said they would instead go on a hunger strike until both sides in the war declared at least two days of cease-fire.

“We are not asking for much,” said Iqbal Khaibar, one of the organizers. “Just two days.”

Khaibar said that over the past two days they had reached out to both the Taliban and the Afghan government to ask them to allow a peace march. “With this move, both sides would have come a step closer, a movement would have started for reducing the mistrust,” he said.

The local authorities did not answer. The Taliban put out a clear rejection, telling the protesters to direct their march to Camp Shorab, the largest military base in the province, where forces from the Afghan National Army and the U.S. military are stationed.

In the 1950s, Helmand was sometimes called “Little America,” because of ambitious dam and canal projects there. But in recent years, it has become synonymous with the devastation of the long war, and the lives of residents in most of its districts have been uprooted.

It has remained a Taliban stronghold, and was the main site of former President Barack Obama’s Afghan troop surge, which brought tens of thousand of U.S. soldiers, mostly Marines, to its villages.

As the total of civilians killed in well over a decade of fighting has reached the tens of thousands, Helmand has remained toward the top of each year’s casualty list. In 2017, the United Nations documented 3,438 civilians killed and 7,015 wounded across Afghanistan. With 386 civilians dead and 605 injured, Helmand was second only to Kabul, the capital, which suffered several large-scale bombings last year.

The Helmand residents’ protest came in the wake of more formal efforts to persuade the Taliban to sit down for negotiations. The insurgents have remained quiet about President Ashraf Ghani’s recent announcement of a comprehensive peace offer, which has received vocal support internationally and from elsewhere in the region.

On Thursday, there was an air of dejection and anger at the protest tent, but also of determination.

“On both sides, in every mosque, there is a funeral. Why is this? It’s because of our silence,” said Sarwar Ghafar, a local school principal. “Oh silent people, if you don’t break your silence you will remain a slave, remain a slave.”

Many of Ghafar’s comments were addressed toward the Taliban, disappointed at their rejection of the peace march.

“I called you brother, and your response was, ‘Go to Shorab.’ We could have both gone to Shorab together. We could have gone to every embassy, every conspirator, every meddler and occupier,” Ghafar said. “But you have your weapon against your own brother, your own sister, and you are packing vehicles with explosives against your own brother. Who are you blowing up? You are blowing up your own people.”

Qais Hashimi, another of the organizers, was crouched on the floor, wailing. He said both sides had demonstrated they were “puppets of foreigners” and did not have authority to make decisions of their own.

“You have ruined life. Isn’t the taking of life up to God? Who are you to be taking lives? You kill yourself and you take 20 lives with you. I will just kill myself, a sacrifice for this country,” Hashimi said. “Our blood is finished, our tears have dried. We will not say another word. We will not eat.”