KABUL, Afghanistan — For almost a year, Taliban leaders in Afghanistan have consistently rejected calls for a cease-fire by officials working to negotiate peace. So a group of grass-roots Afghan activists is going to try asking them in person.
Members of the People’s Peace Movement have been walking across Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan since Thursday, when they left the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. They are heading toward territory controlled by the Taliban. Most of them are fasting during the day for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan while enduring 100-degree temperatures.
During their 100-mile journey to the district of Musa Qala, which has been under Taliban control for years, they stopped at villages where they were welcomed by crowds who echoed their calls for an end to the decades-long conflict in Afghanistan, its latest chapter since the United States invasion, in its 18th year.
The activists are on the move as peace talks between the Taliban and the United States seem stuck. But it appeared unlikely they will get a better reception than the politicians in their pleas for a cease-fire.
“We will not allow them to enter our territories,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said on Sunday. “This movement is working according to the direct guidance of Afghan intelligence and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”
Although the two sides have made some progress toward an agreement on the withdrawal of American troops in return for security guarantees from the Taliban, they have struggled to reach the next stage of discussing Afghanistan’s political future. While the Taliban have met with Afghan opposition leaders and political parties, they refuse to negotiate directly with the country’s government, which they have called illegitimate.
In their latest round of meetings with Afghan politicians in Moscow last week, the Taliban once again rejected a cease-fire before a peace agreement that includes the withdrawal of foreign forces. The group has been using its battlefield momentum as leverage in the talks, and Taliban leaders say an extended cease-fire would be disastrous for their side.
“No one should expect us to pour cold water on the heated battlefronts of jihad,” the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, said on Saturday in his annual message for Eid al-Fitr, the festival celebrating the end of Ramadan.
Afghanistan’s last cease-fire was declared for three days last June during the same festival.
The extreme temperatures and Ramadan fasting mean the peace marchers walk slowly and take long breaks. They have walked about 30 miles since Thursday, and their numbers are growing as they make their way into Taliban territory, members said.
The group is currently made up of about three dozen men and boys, ranging in age from 10 to 68. They include students, day laborers and businessmen, and many of them are victims of the war.
One is a young poet who was blinded by a Taliban roadside bomb that also killed his sister, just a couple of years after an American airstrike killed his father and uncle. Another is a 10-year-old who is marching with his father after losing his mother to a mortar shell.
One of the marchers, Anwar Mazlomyar, said the group planned to ask the Taliban to accept a cease-fire.
“After a cease-fire, there could be peace in the country, and we can make foreign forces leave Afghanistan,” he said. “We can’t solve this problem without making peace with each other and showing mercy.”
The peace movement began last spring after a brutal attack in Lashkar Gah, a city on the banks of the Helmand River that has been often bloodied, its residents moving from one tragedy to the next. A suicide bombing at a sports event left more than a dozen people, including children, in pieces.
Fed up with the recurring violence, a group of local activists pitched a tent not far from the site of the bombing and began a sit-in, crying, “Our blood is finished, our tears have dried.” Their modest request of a two-day cease-fire was denied even after many of them went on a hunger strike.
The Taliban rejected a plan by the activists to march from Lashkar Gah to areas under the group’s control, telling them to take their protest to the Americans first. So the activists set off on a journey of more than 300 miles and 30 days to the Afghan capital, Kabul, making their way through villages devastated by the war.
In Kabul, they protested outside government offices and embassies of countries seen as involved in the war or influential on either side of it. Then they continued marching north, many of them barefoot, to further spread their message around the country. At gatherings in different cities, the activists repeatedly asked the Taliban for a cease-fire, always to no avail.