LAGHMAN -- Afghan youth from 21 provinces are traveling to various regions in the country to deliver messages of peace and learn about other local cultures as part of a government-sponsored programme.
The "Watandar" initiative was launched by the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) a year ago.
As part of the project, a group of 70 participants travelled to Mehtarlam, Laghman Province, as well as to Qarghayi District on a day-long visit on February 17. They travelled to historical sites and talked about peace with locals.
Many in the group were visiting Laghman for the first time.
"We have visited seven other provinces so far in order for residents of one area to visit another area and learn about their culture," Zainullah Shahidzoi, director of the programme, told reporters on February 17 at the Laghman governor's office.
"Our most important objective is to deliver messages of peace to every corner of the country while allowing our travel companions the opportunity to see areas that are now secure," he said.
"We have been to the northern and western provinces, and regardless of where we are, Afghans are thirsty for peace and love," said Shahidzoi. "There is no bias among Hazara, Pashtun and Tajik. We are all Afghans, and we all need peace."
Participants in the programme recounted their excitement about visiting areas of the country they had never seen before, including some considered insecure in the past because of militancy.
"I used to be terrified upon hearing the name of Laghman or other parts of eastern provinces since I was told that those provinces are insecure," said Mohammad Ewaz Mohammadi, a resident of Nimroz Province.
"But now, I am very happy to be here to see the people and the beauty of this place," he added.
"This is all thanks to the Afghan security forces. We are thirsty for peace, and we want peace so that we can hike in the mountains, walk around and explore the beauty of our country," Mohammadi said. "Be it the Taliban or any other group, they should make peace and end the war."
'So much love here'
"We saw the Saraj historical fort in Laghman and built a garden by the name of peace where visitors from every province planted a tree," he said. "We also prayed in the Mehtarlam Baba shrine and watched a game played in Gamberi, another area in Laghman."
Hafiz Saeedi, who travelled from Sar-e-Pul Province to Laghman, expressed his happiness about travelling to the region to further strengthen national unity.
"We are all brothers and sisters," Saeedi said. "We do not want to be divided and biased toward each other anymore. We came from faraway provinces preaching love and harmony, but we are surprised to see so much love here."
"I will take with me a very positive memory of this area and tell residents of my province about how people from eastern provinces love peace."
After visiting Laghman, participants travelled to Nangarhar Province on February 18. They visited historical places and libraries and travelled to Dara-e-Noor District to see Pashayi culture up close.
"This is a good way to deliver a message of peace and bring different cultures closer," said Ezatullah Pamir, a spokesperson for the Watandar initiative. "This type of programme shows that Afghans have now abandoned hatred and are focusing on their prosperity."
"Residents of remote areas need peace. If there is peace in this country, Afghans will finally have a chance to live their lives," he said.
"We will expand this programme to other provinces too. We will take residents from eastern provinces to the north and south of the country to learn about each other and exchange ideas on how to bring peace," Pamir added.
"If the peace talks among the US, the Taliban and the Afghan government reach a fruitful conclusion, I will travel to Nuristan as well as the mountains of Dawlat Shah in Laghman," said Gulab Ibrahimi, a participant in the Watandar project.
The United States plans to sign an agreement with the Taliban Saturday (February 29) in Qatar if a week-long truce holds.