Frustrated Afghans in a long march for peace

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The “convoy of peace” was conceived in March by villagers in the southern Helmand province. (Photo courtesy: Iqbal Khaibar, an organizer of the march)
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The “convoy of peace” was conceived in March by villagers in the southern Helmand province. (Photo courtesy: Iqbal Khaibar, an organizer of the march)
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The “convoy of peace” was conceived in March by villagers in the southern Helmand province. (Photo courtesy: Iqbal Khaibar, an organizer of the march)
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The “convoy of peace” was conceived in March by villagers in the southern Helmand province. (Photo courtesy: Iqbal Khaibar, an organizer of the march)
Updated 10 June 2018

Frustrated Afghans in a long march for peace

  • For weeks, a growing group has walked from Helmand to neighboring provinces to mobilize public pressure on the government and the Taliban to end the war. 
  • The group plans to march to Kabul to pass on a proposal to the government, the UN and the US-led coalition. Most of the marchers have lost at least one family member to the war.   

KABUL: Under blistering sun, a group of fasting Afghans has been marching for peace for nearly a month, mobilizing people in villages and towns.

The “Convoy of Peace” was conceived in March by villagers in southern Helmand province, after more than a dozen people were killed when an explosives-laden vehicle went off during a wrestling match as part of Afghan new-year celebrations.

The villagers walked for nearly 200 km to talk with government commanders and Taliban members to agree to a truce.

When their message fell on deaf ears, they set up a sit-in tent, then began a nationwide march at the start of Ramadan. 

Braving the heat and attacks, the group has marched from Helmand to the adjacent provinces of Kandahar, Zabul and Ghazni.

The route is part of a Taliban stronghold, and witnesses routine clashes between it and US-backed Afghan forces.

The marchers “have been welcomed by villagers who give them food, shelter and medical care,” Roozi Mohammad Zabuli, a coordinator of civil society groups in Zabul, told Arab News.

“They’re telling the people that peace is in the hands of ordinary people, and that they can achieve it by putting pressure on the warring sides. People are exhausted here and thirsty for peace, and have hailed the initiative.” 

The march began with seven people but now includes 50. One is a sports champion, another has a master’s degree, and two are physically disabled.

Sardar Mohammad re-joined the march after leaving to attend the funeral of his brother, who was killed in an attack in Kandahar. Most of the marchers have lost at least one family member to the war.

Hamidullah Tokhi, a lawmaker from Zabul, said the group prefers to avoid engaging with local authorities because it does not want to be seen to be favoring one side.

“It’s a big initiative. People are happy. You’ll see a gradual but concrete impact on the minds of people that they have to take charge of their own destiny rather than wait for others to bring them peace,” he told Arab News.

“We can call it the start of a revolution. Revolutions always begin with a small number of people and ambitious goals. They have the determination and will to work for peace.”

Government officials and the Taliban endorse the march, saying they will support any move than can bring security to Afghanistan.

The marchers plan to head to Kabul to pass on a proposal to the government, the UN and the US-led coalition for a cease-fire, the establishment of an Islamic government that includes the Taliban, and a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces.

“If the two sides don’t accept our demands, we’ll go to other provinces and tell people to join us and mount pressure on who’s at fault,” Iqbal Khaibar, an organizer of the march, told Arab News.

In Kabul, “we’ll be telling the international community humbly: ‘We’re human just like you. All our mothers are mourning here every day. Do your mothers and your blood differ from ours? Let us have peace’,” he added.

Zabuli said: “When there’s national pressure, foreign troops will pull out. We just need to give people the mentality that they have to stand and take charge of their lives and stop the war.”

Khaibar said: “The Taliban says foreign troops should leave then it’ll talk with the government, while foreign troops say there should be peace then they’ll leave. We have to find a solution to this, and that’s exactly what the marchers are after.”

Indian manned space flight ‘by 2022,’ PM pledges

Updated 19 min 13 sec ago

Indian manned space flight ‘by 2022,’ PM pledges

  • Modi highlights manned space mission and major health care initiative during independence day address
  • PM’s speech a campaign launch for next year’s elections, observers say

NEW DELHI: India is planning its first manned space mission by 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Wednesday.

Delivering his fifth independence day speech from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort in New Delhi, Modi said that the manned flight would be the culmination of India’s recent advances in space science.

“We have decided that by 2022, when India completes 75 years of independence, or before that, a son or daughter of India will go to space with a tricolor in their hands,” he said.

India will become the fourth nation after the US, Russia and China to send a manned mission to space.

In his 90-minute speech, Modi listed his achievements of the past four-and-a-half years and announced a new health care scheme that would cover 5 billion people.

Observers described Modi’s speech as a campaign launch for next year’s elections.

“No doubt next year’s elections are playing on the PM’s mind. The tone and tenor of the address reflects that,” said political analyst and author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay.

As expected, the Indian PM announced his government’s flagship program, Ayushman Bharat, a national health scheme that will offer health insurance from about $5,000 to 1.4 million poorer families.

Popularly named “Modicare,” the scheme targets rural and middle-class voters and will be rolled out in the final week of September.

Comparing the past four years of his leadership with the previous government, Modi said that “the red tape has gone and now there is more ease of business — the sleeping elephant has started walking.”

He boasted that “India’s standing in the world has increased in the past four years and today when any Indian goes anywhere, all countries of the world welcome them and the power of the Indian passport has increased.”

However, the opposition Congress Party described the speech as high in rhetoric and low in substance.

“The Indian economy is a virtual shambles. The rupee has crashed to a historic low. Joblessness, farmers’ suicides, atrocities against marginalized Dalit groups, attack on minorities, corruption — all these show that the government has failed,” said Sanjay Jha, a Congress Party spokesman.

Aateka Khan, of Delhi University, said Modi’s speech was “hollow” and that “India has never looked as divided as it is looking now. He has failed to assure the besieged minorities about their security.”

Mukhopadhyay said the speech was “disappointing” and failed to reflect the vision Modi set out when he addressed the nation for the first time in 2014.

“He seems to be still blaming the opposition for the ills of the country,” the political analyst said.

Mukhopadhyay believes that “Modicare” ignores India’s huge infrastructure deficiency. “In the absence of good medical facilities, how are poor people going to benefit from the insurance?” he asked.

India’s 71st independence day also offered observers a chance to reflect and assess the country’s future.

“The legacy of freedom is under siege today. We as a modern nation state with secular principle are at a crossroads,” said Santosh Sarang, a political analysts based in the eastern Indian state of Bihar.

“The forces of division are more predominant today than ever before in this independent nation.”

Sarang said that “economic growth is not the only parameter that can make India great; keeping India together and preserving its syncretic culture is also important. The way the attack on minorities has increased and their sense of insecurity has been institutionalized make us question how long we can remain a liberal and secular democracy.”

He warned that “majoritarian Hindu forces now want to rewrite the Indian constitution to make it exclusive, not inclusive.”

Urmilesh, a New Delhi-based thinker and analyst, agreed. “What is at stake is the idea of India. In 1947, we took a pledge to make India a modern, progressive nation and tried to promote scientific temper among new generation, but today a new idea of India is being promoted which sees its future in majoritarian politics. This is very much against the spirit of freedom struggle and nation-building.”

He said that independence day left him “somber and sad” that fundamentalist forces, such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its protege Bhartiya Janata Party, which never participated in the freedom struggle and opposed the creation of a liberal and secular India, are ruling the country.

“The atmosphere in the country is so vicious that religious minorities and liberals have been pushed to the edge,” he said.

The right-wing activist Nirala, however, said that “the meaning of independence day does not remain the same all the time. We cannot have the same prism of looking at India as it was in 1947. What is happening today is the redefining of nationalism, which reflects the majoritarian thinking. Hinduism is the way of life in India and it should asserted unabashedly.”