Marching to a Different Tune

In an unprecedented move, young people across Afghanistan have set aside ethnic differences to campaign for national unity.

By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif (ARR No. 172, 13-May-05)

Hundreds of young men, fed up with the ethnic animosities that have long divided Afghanistan, are travelling the country preaching peace and brotherhood.

“Just yesterday our youngsters were trying to kill one another, but today they're thinking about national unity and they want to live as brothers," said Haji Sarajuddin, a teacher from Kandahar province.

Sarajuddin recently accompanied about 200 senior high school students from the traditional Pashtun stronghold in the south to Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, in an area where ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks are in the majority.

The two regions came to symbolise the deep divisions that marked the years of strife of the Nineties.

But in April, nearly 300 students in Mazar-e-Sharif warmly embraced their fellow countrymen from Kandahar when they met at a local hotel.

The students, all in their teens or early twenties, were too young to have participated in the years of civil war.

“We know that due to the conflicts, a lot of distance has come between the peoples of Afghanistan," Mohammad Nazar, 23, told IWPR. "You can't bring about national unity by just talking, so about 30 of us at schools in Kandahar got together and decided to do something practical."

From the core group of 30, the unity movement boomed, said Nazar.

The young men say they have no political agenda other than reconciliation. They have taken their message not only to Mazar-e-Sharif, the capital of Balkh province, but also to other northern regions such as Parwan, Baghlan, Takhar and Kunduz, to Paktia and Zabul in the south, and to the capital Kabul and the nearby Wardak province.

Nazar said the group and its message have been welcomed everywhere. The students even met President Hamed Karzai, who endorsed their efforts.

“We had decided to pay the expenses of the tour by ourselves, but when the governor of Kandahar province heard about what we were doing, he paid all our costs," said Nazar.

"There was a lot of propaganda against the Mazar people in Kandahar province, and we thought we might not be welcome," said Shir Mohammad, another Kandahar student. "But then we came here and got to know the kids from Balkh.

"Now I feel like every part of Afghanistan is Kandahar, or home, for me."

The meeting in Mazar-e-Sharif ended with rounds of hugs, and students from both provinces chanted the group’s motto, “We are neither Pashtun nor Tajik, neither Uzbek nor Hazara - we are merely Afghans and want to live as brothers in our country. We don’t let anyone give us weapons or misuse us as in the past. Every province of Afghanistan is our home, and we want to build that home.”

According to Farhad, who helped with arrangements for the visitors, more than 1,000 students from Balkh province have decided they too want to take that message on the road.

They were willing to pay their own expenses until the governor intervened.

“I'm ready to pay all the students' travel expenses personally if they want,” said Balkh governor Atta Mohammad.

The grassroots movement has taken the authorities in Kabul by surprise. Abdul Khalil Qadis, secretary of the national youth ministry, said he was not aware of it until he was told by a reporter.

"Meetings like these are the only way to solve the problems left over from the war," said Ghulam Farooq Khepalwak, a political analyst and a teacher at Balkh University. “What these young people are doing is more effective than anything else, because they were not involved in the civil wars."

“I think they will succeed because they have more hope than we do about their future," said Sahib Jan, a 57-year-old shopkeeper in Mazar-e-Sharif. "The future belongs to the youngsters."

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.