Khial Bibi has lost five children and a husband to the war ravaging Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold that has been the scene of deadly militant attacks and bloody gunbattles with government forces for years.
"We want the violence to stop," the elderly Bibi says inside a crammed tent in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, where hundreds of grieving women have gathered to protest against Taliban attacks and to urge the militant group to end its 16-year insurgency against the government.
"I'm asking for the Taliban and the government to work together to achieve peace," says the crouching Bibi, surrounded by dozens of women and children. "For God’s sake, please end this."
The women protesters are part of a so-called People’s Movement that has attracted hundreds of people from Helmand, an opium-producing province where the Taliban control large swaths of territory. The women have pitched their protest tents next to sit-ins organized by local men.
The participation of women at such events is unusual in southern Afghanistan, a conservative and Pashtun-dominated region where women play a limited role in public life.
Sit-ins were staged and the movement created after a car packed with explosives blew up outside a sports stadium in Lashkar Gah as spectators were leaving a wrestling match, killing 16 people and wounding 40, all of them civilians, according to local officials. No group claimed responsibility for the March 23 attack, although many suspect it was the Taliban.
The deadly attack stirred up long-held grievances among residents in Helmand.
"Many of the women who have come here to protest have lost husbands, brothers, and sons," says Husnia Ehsas, the organizer of the female sit-ins. "We don’t want any more women to experience the pain we have suffered."
Civilians bear the brunt of the war in Afghanistan. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan's annual report, at least 3,438 civilians were killed and 7,015 others were injured in 2017 due to the conflict.
Protest organizers have announced plans to stage a peace march from Lashkar Gah to Musa Qala, a Taliban-controlled district, to demand an end to the war.
The plans prompted a response from the Taliban, with Taliban spokesman Qari Yosuf Ahmadi urging the protesters in a March 28 statement to demonstrate instead at U.S. bases to end the "current occupation."
The statement further warned the protesters that the Taliban were "seriously concerned that the enemy circles will misuse your name."
"God forbid, if something were to happen then responsibility will be placed squarely on your shoulders because you understand that we are at war, are facing various enemy plots, and will be forced to take serious steps in pursuit of their neutralization."
The planned peace march, initially scheduled for March 29, was subsequently cancelled due to security concerns and failure by the protesters to get assurances from the government that it would not intervene.
'For God's Sake'
The protest in Helmand comes as the Afghan government and its international allies step up efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Last month, President Ashraf Ghani offered to allow the Taliban to establish itself as a political party and said he would work to remove sanctions on the militant group, among other incentives, if it joined the government in peace negotiations to end the war.
In return, the militants would have to recognize the Kabul government and respect the rule of law.
The Taliban have yet to turn down Ghani’s offer of peace talks without preconditions, but have insisted that they want to negotiate with the United States, which it calls a "foreign occupying force." The Taliban also says that NATO forces must withdraw before negotiations can begin.
For many residents of Helmand, an end to decades of conflict cannot come soon enough.
"I’m the head of a family of 14 people," says a female protester in Lashkar Gah who did not want to be identified. "I have daughters-in-law, but no sons left. For God’s sake, stop this war."
Original story can be read here