As they march for peace through Afghan villages laced with roadside bombs and bottomless heartache, their numbers keep growing.
They come from all walks of life, ages 17 to 65. Among them is a high school student who went home to complete his final exams before rejoining the others; a poet who still carries in his chest one of the four bullets he was shot with; a bodybuilding champion who abandoned his gym and has lost 20 pounds of muscle on the journey. They are day laborers, farmers, retired army officers, a polio victim on crutches, a mechanic who was robbed of his sight by war.
Afghanistan’s most striking grass-roots movement for peace in recent years started with just eight people. I started watching their movement then, when it was a hunger strike born out of pain and outrage at a suicide bombing that killed and wounded dozens in Helmand Province. A group of young men pitched a protest tent next to the carnage. Their blood had become cheap — too cheap, they said. For too long, they had been dying in silence.
Then they began marching north toward the capital through some of the most devastated parts of southern Afghanistan. We joined up with them this past Sunday, 30 days and 300 miles into their journey, as they rested their blistered feet in the cool of a small mosque near the city of Ghazni.
By that point, their numbers had grown to 65, and they kept walking through the Ramadan fast, taking no food or water through the 100-plus-degree daytime heat.
They are marching to say this: that the war has turned into a monster with a life of its own, feeding on the poor at the rate of more than 50 a day. The longer it drags on, the more difficult it becomes to reach a settlement. Killings turn into blood-feuds that lead to more killings.
They want it to end, to give them a chance to live. At every stop, hundreds gather to hear their stories of loss and share their own.
Their latest member is a shopkeeper from the western province of Herat named Mohamed Anwar. He arrived on a bus with three changes of clothing tucked under his arm and three pairs of prayer beads in his pocket.
“I told my wife I am going to join my friends,” Mr. Anwar said.
Despite the simplicity of their protest, they know that bringing an end to four decades of war is no easy thing. There are so many competing interests: the Taliban insurgents emboldened by recent success, the harried and corruption-riddled Afghan government, the Americans and Europeans struggling for any positive outcome, the host of international players — Pakistan, Russia, Iran — for whom the war is a chessboard.
The beating heart of their march is each village mosque along the way, where they meet residents and rest for the night. They rely on the generosity of villagers who feed them, take their clothes home to wash and exchange stories.
In Shajoy district, the marchers met an older man whose daughter-in-law was abducted by a local police commander and married off to one of his men. The woman’s husband and his brother both joined the Taliban. The brother’s dead body came home within a week.
At a public bathhouse in the Moqor district of Ghazni Province, they met the commander of a small pro-government militia. A longtime rival of the man’s family, now operating under the Taliban banner, had killed one of his uncles, then another, then another, then another. The man took up arms for the government because he feared he could be next.
In the countryside, both the Taliban and the government can take the role of oppressor. Sometimes it is not even clear who pulled the trigger.
As their numbers grow, the marchers’ routine remains the same: walking for about 15 miles along the edge of highway, in a single file, and then camping out at the next mosque. The walk is often lonely, through sparsely populated areas. During the daytime heat, they drag their feet. When the evening cools, the confidence returns in their steps.
When they approach a crowd, they begin their chants, followed by a description of who they are and what mosque they would be stopping at next if the onlookers — a young student stopping his bicycle, one foot on the ground; a mechanic covered in grease; a watermelon seller peeking above his pile of striped fruit — wanted to hear more.
“That our life is ugly!” one marcher, Bacha Khan Mauladad, shouts through a megaphone.
“It is war, it is war,” the men respond.
Mr. Mauladad, at 27 the oldest man in his family, will miss his sister’s wedding next week to continue marching.
The youngest, 17-year-old Mohammed Tahir, is usually at the head of the file, pushing a stroller packed with emergency necessities: a pair of crutches, umbrellas, a plastic rug, some spare sandals and a solar panel they use to charge their phones.
Among the items in his own backpack, Tahir carries a book, a comb, a bar of soap, a roll of toilet paper, a toothbrush, hair gel and packets of vitamin C.
One of the most cheerful marchers is Bahlul Patyal, a rotund pharmacist who left his drugstore and month-old infant daughter in Lashkar Gah to join. With the feet of some of the marchers having shed skin as many as four times, he has become a traveling medic in high demand.
Mr. Patyal carries a heavy sack of medicine on his back, and a first-aid kit. When they stop at a mosque to meet villagers, he holds clinic in a quiet corner. Dipping a needle in antiseptic, he punctures blisters and patches them with thick balls of gauze.
When a marcher curls up in pain, Mr. Patyal gives him a bottle of cleaning alcohol to sniff. It helps with churning stomachs.
His humor helps ease other kinds of hurt.
“You know,” he likes to say, “my wife told me that I shouldn’t even dare coming back through the door if I don’t lose weight on this march.”
The only village where they deprived of a meal was in the Nanani district of Ghazni. As they gathered around the food prepared by villagers, members of the Taliban’s elite force — known as the Red Unit — arrived and told them to leave. An offensive was planned and fighting could start any minute. The Taliban were also angry because the men had walked through an area laced with mines that could have been activated any minute, their blood on the Taliban’s hands.
Cities, however, have disappointed. The marchers find the political bickering and the superficial formalities there too much.
As they approach the Afghan capital, Kabul, the final destination for their message, they are nervous — about political opportunists who could hijack their message, about the elites of a capital long separated from the pain of the countryside.
Iqbal Khyber, a 27-year-old, soft-spoken medical student, has become one of the marchers’ leaders. In addressing crowds, he draws on the group’s personal stories of loss, and recounts others they have heard during their journey.
“The tall buildings, the fancy cars, that is not our life,” Mr. Khyber told a crowd of about 300 in a mosque near the city of Ghazni.
Pointing to the three men who were standing with him, and whose stories he went on to tell, he said: “This is our story.”
One of them was Zaheer Ahmad, 21. He was 7 when American planes bombed their neighborhood in Greshk district in Helmand Province, leaving a crater so large that no trace of his father and uncle could be found.
As the war intensified in Helmand, their extended family moved to other provinces. Young Zaheer became a mechanic’s apprentice in Kandahar. He was so good that by the time he was 16, he opened his own shop.
One day, about four years ago, Zaheer booked two bus tickets and set off to the city of Herat, where he would drop off his 15-year-old sister at the house of another displaced relative. They were seated in the fourth row of the bus when the Taliban’s bomb went off on the roadside.
Zaheer remembers feeling blood on his face, fire around him, and the screams of his sister. She didn’t make it. Zaheer’s world, from that moment, went dark.
“I want to let out my pain,” Zaheer said. “There is a lot of pain tight inside me.”
At nights, some of the march leaders continued to meet locals and worked past midnight to plan for the next day. For the rest, there was little talk of war and peace. They were travelers, sharing stories, cigarettes, tea in the cool breeze on the mosque porch.
In between drags on a cigarette, Ataullah Khan, a 65-year-old retired army colonel, talked about his moment of fame in 1980. While he was serving in western Afghanistan, a Russian photographer snapped a photo of him in uniform, his impressive mustache curled up, as he raised a child up for the camera. The photo made it to the cover of a magazine, and from there to frames on the walls of ice cream parlors in his hometown, Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province.
The bodybuilder, Zmaray Zaland, showed videos on his phone of an international competition he won. They giggled as they watched him perform in a skimpy Speedo, glistening with oil. He flexed his muscles, and shimmied in a little dance.
“I had never heard of that music, or done that dance in my life before that day,” he told them.
Most of the marchers get barely four hours of sleep. Around 2:30 a.m., villagers bring a quick meal before the day’s fast: a cup of sweetened milk, some cookies and bread. They pray the dawn prayer, grab their bags and set off single file into the soft dawn light.
Their 64th member, a sharp-eyed mason named Mohammed, arrived on Sunday with just a change of clothes knotted into the shawl on his back. He had tracked the march’s progress on his phone during rest stops as he rode the bus toward them.
When asked how old he was, Mr. Mohammed did a calculation.
“I was 15, in eighth grade, when the war started,” he said. “It’s been 40 years since then.”