'If peace comes': Afghans dream of life after war that has caused over 10,000 casualties each year

The aftermath of a car bomb attack in Kabul on Sept 3, 2019. With a partial truce under way and a deal between the US and the Taleban likely on the horizon, Afghans are daring to dream of the war ending and their country finally opening up. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KABUL (AFP) - With a partial truce under way on Saturday (Feb 21) and a deal between the United States and the Taleban likely on the horizon, Afghans are daring to dream of the war ending and their country finally opening up.

The "reduction in violence" agreed by the Taleban, the US and the Afghan security forces comes ahead of a possible deal between the insurgents and Washington which would see the US pull thousands of troops out of Afghanistan.

While the move is fraught with uncertainty, it marks a potentially historic step in the country's more than 18-year-old war.

Afghans have been sharing their hopes for peace on social media, tagging posts with hashtags in Dari and Pashto - Afghanistan's two main languages - that translate to #ifPeaceComes and #whenThereIsCeasefire.

"In the past 15 years, people have not been able to travel on highways safely. The Taleban stop them, kill them or kidnap them," Mr Ramin Mazhar, a popular poet who helped spread the hashtags, told AFP.

If the reduction in violence holds, Mr Mazhar said he would go to Nuristan, an inaccessible province in the north-east of the country.

"I want to go to Nuristan, run, laugh, sing, dance, whistle and eat yogurt," he said.

"I want to touch its green hills, crazy rivers and blue sky. I want to climb its trees, and know its pigeons."

'Hippie trail'

Afghanistan was once a popular destination on the "hippie trail" that saw foreigners from across Europe travel to the country by bus en route to India in the 1960s and 1970s.

Tourism was all but destroyed following the Soviet invasion in 1979 that led to over 40 years of continuous fighting and instability.

Few Afghans have been able to visit areas outside of their immediate home ever since, while millions have relocated to urban areas or moved abroad.

The desire to see more of the country is strong.

Afghanistan is home to stunning mountain ranges like the snow-capped Hindu Kush, along with verdant, remote valleys and swathes of pristine desert.

However, with the Taleban controlling or contesting approximately half of Afghanistan, only small pockets of the country are accessible.

Highways and roads connecting urban centres to outlying towns and villages are notoriously dangerous, with travellers killed or kidnapped almost daily by insurgents or criminal gangs.

Domestic flights, which are already too expensive for most Afghans, are also limited.

"I have promised to take my friends to Badakhshan... (and) will fulfil my promise only when there is a ceasefire," Mr Abdullah Jahid wrote on Twitter about the country's mountainous northern province near the border with Tajikistan.

"If peace comes, I will go to the remotest villages of Afghanistan to meet with the indigenous people, eat their food, learn about their handcrafts and share my sorrows and happiness with them," added Mr Hamidullah Satari, another Twitter user.

Hopes spurred

The burst in enthusiasm comes as the Taleban and US are expected on Feb 29 to strike a deal that would see American troops withdraw from the country in exchange for security guarantees, after more than a year of gruelling talks.

Most analysts agree a subsequent agreement between the Taleban and the Kabul government would take years, but the breakthrough has spurred hopes.

People from all walks of life have been using the hashtags - outlining journeys to be taken by foot, bicycle, or road trips by car, while Afghans living abroad have vowed to return to their country and settle if the war ends.

Even the Taleban are taking to social media to share hopes for peace.

"It was easy to travel under the Taleban regime but America destroyed everything. When the invasion ends, everything will be easy again," a Taleban supporter tweeted.

Others have said they hope any peace will provide an opportunity to help those who have suffered the most after decades of bloodshed.

Ms Heela Najibullah - the daughter of former Afghan president Najibullah Ahmadzai who was brutally tortured and murdered by the Taleban in 1996 - said she hoped to visit her father's grave in south-eastern Paktia province.

"I will walk to my father's grave. I will cry and pray that no other Afghan child becomes an orphan," she tweeted.

"I will make a school there, and teach at the university."

Lives taken

Meanwhile, the United Nations announced on Saturday that more than 10,000 civilians had been killed or wounded in Afghanistan's war last year.

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama), 3,404 civilians were killed and 6,989 were injured in 2019.

While the number was down 5 per cent from 2018, it was nonetheless the sixth year straight that the war caused more than 10,000 casualties, Unama said.

"Almost no civilian in Afghanistan has escaped being personally affected in some way by the ongoing violence," Unama head Tadamichi Yamamoto said.

"It is absolutely imperative for all parties to seize the moment to stop the fighting, as peace is long overdue; civilian lives must be protected and efforts for peace are under way."

The 5 per cent drop in casualties was attributed to the decrease in activity by the local Islamic State affiliate in eastern Afghanistan, which was largely wiped out last year.

The Taleban, the US and Afghan forces have agreed to cut violence for seven days ahead of the planned Feb 29 signing of a US-Taleban deal that could begin to end the war.

The US has been in talks with the Taleban for more than a year to secure the deal, in which it would pull out thousands of troops in return for Taleban security guarantees and a promise to hold peace talks with the government in Kabul.

The Unama report said there had been significant fluctuations in violence throughout 2019, coinciding with gains and setbacks made during US-Taleban negotiations.

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