HERAT -- The People's Peace Movement, a group of Afghans who have been demonstrating for peace since last year, began a new round of visits to 34 provinces of Afghanistan to promote an end to the war.
While the group previously marched on foot to each province, members are travelling by car this time. The first gathering of this round of the peace march took place in Lashkargah, Helmand Province, on December 10.
After Helmand, the group travelled to Shindand District, Herat Province, on December 15. The People's Peace Movement members were joined by hundreds of war-weary residents of the district chanting pro-peace and anti-war slogans.
On December 20, members of the group together with almost 200 residents protested in the city of Herat to denounce the war with the Taliban and demand peace.
The conflict has taken a heavy toll on the Afghan people and they are tired of war, the protesters say.
"The People's Peace Movement demands peace from the Taliban," said Muhammad Nekzad, a member of the movement and a resident of Helmand Province. "We want them to resume peace talks, agree to a ceasefire and form a government that is committed to national interests and Islamic values."
"After Herat, we will go to another province and will visit all 34 provinces to raise our voice for peace," he said.
An immediate and unconditional ceasefire is one of the demands of the People's Peace Movement, as well as of the residents of Herat Province.
A ceasefire can facilitate the resumption of peace talks and lead to a reduction in violence, say members of the group.
"Our demand from the government and the Taliban is peace," said Muhammad Ismael Selab, a member of the movement and a resident of Logar Province. "They must immediately agree to a ceasefire. With a ceasefire, peace talks can advance and they will definitely have a positive outcome."
"Afghans want intra-Afghan peace talks to start," he said. "Members of the People's Peace Movement in this march come from 24 provinces. We want to raise our voice for peace. We will go from Herat to Farah and will meet with residents of the city and districts to encourage them to join the call for peace."
Afghans are fed up with war and want a lasting peace, agreed Naser Khan Naseri, another member of the movement and a resident of Nangarhar Province.
"Our message and the message of all Afghans are that a ceasefire should be announced as soon as possible and that intra-Afghan talks should start during the ceasefire," he said. "If there is no ceasefire, peace talks will not get us anywhere."
"We will go to all of the provinces, to all embassies in the country and will ensure that the United Nations, the United States, and neighbouring and regional countries hear our voice and our demand for peace," he said.
"We want a ceasefire to be announced immediately, and in the meantime, peace talks should proceed in a peaceful environment in Afghanistan," he said. "War is not the solution."
'War is not the answer'
That sentiment was shared by Fahimullah Shahab, another member of the People's Peace Movement and a resident of Kandahar Province.
"My request to the government and the Taliban is that they must first agree to a ceasefire and then start intra-Afghan talks," he said. "War is not the answer anymore, and it must end."
The Taliban and the government should sit together to talk, he said.
"Until when must Afghans die? Who are the Taliban and the soldiers? Both are Afghans and Muslims," he said. "They should not kill each other or innocent Afghans anymore. They should make peace."
"On behalf of all Afghans, we raise our voice and declare that we are all tired of war," said Omaid Naab, another member of the People's Peace Movement from Herat Province. "Thousands of our compatriots have been killed or maimed."
"We want all parties involved in the conflict to announce a ceasefire and start intra-Afghan talks," he said.
Religious scholars offer mediation
Meanwhile, more than 200 religious scholars from the western provinces announced at a gathering in Herat city on December 22 that they are ready to mediate between the Taliban and the government to pave the way for peace.
They also asked Afghans to continue to raise their voices to ensure the success of the peace process.
"We, the religious scholars, demand from all parties involved in the conflict to stop fighting and announce a ceasefire immediately," said Maulawi Khudaidad Saleh, chairman of the Ulema Council for the western provinces. "We, and all Afghans, want peace and cannot accept war anymore."
"Religious scholars, former mujahideen leaders and tribal elders of the western zone are ready to mediate between the government and the Taliban to encourage them to have face-to-face talks," he said. "All Afghans, including the Taliban and the government, have realised that war and bloodshed are not the solution and that they should pursue peace."
Several Taliban representatives were present at the gathering and they also demanded an end to the war, Saleh said, adding that they will convey the group's message to Taliban leaders.
"Representatives of all walks of society must be present in the peace talks so that all Afghans have ownership," he said. "Neighbouring and regional countries want to interfere in the peace process, but Afghans should not allow them and should take the initiative into their own hands."
Now is the time for peace and the Taliban should shun violence, said Toryalai Taheri, deputy chairman of the Herat Provincial Council.
"All Afghans want to see the start of the intra-Afghan talks," he said. "We want all countries involved in the process to facilitate direct talks between the government and Taliban as soon as possible."
"The Taliban, as well as the government and the nation, are tired of war," Taheri said.
"War is not the solution. We must find a peaceful solution to the current problem," he said. "If the Taliban do not want the public to further hate them, they should immediately announce a ceasefire and enter peace talks with the government of Afghanistan."