WASHINGTON / KABUL - After losing his mother to war, 10-year-old Hikmatullah decided to join a peace movement, members of which have been walking hundreds of kilometers to different regions of Afghanistan since June with the message of peace and an end to violence.
"A mortar hit our house and killed my mother. I joined the peace marchers because I don't want other kids to see their mothers die," Hikmatullah told VOA.
Hikmatullah, who like many Afghans goes by one name, is calling on all warring sides in Afghanistan to make peace so that he and others can return to school.
"I want peace, because I want to go back to school," he added.
Hikmatullah and his father joined the Helmand peace march in southeastern Ghazni province.
Peace marchers members start their travel toward Kabul in Herat, Afghanistan
Message of peace
Once in Kabul, the father returned to his hometown of Ghazni, but Hikmatullah decided to continue to accompany the movement in the members' journey to northern Afghanistan.
The group made it to Mazar-e-Sharif city, the capital of northern Balkh province, on Friday after walking barefoot a distance of close to 650 kilometers for 32 consecutive days.
"Our message is the message of peace," read a banner held by members of the march who left Kabul Aug. 10 on their way to Balkh.
The journey has been challenging and tough but full of hope, one of the members of the movement told reporters as they arrived in Balkh.
The peace movement that Hikmatullah joined began in southern Helmand province in the form of a sit-in in the aftermath of a terror attack near a sports stadium in the provincial capital of Lashkargah, which killed at least 14 people and wounded dozens more.
The attack occurred while a wrestling match was underway. Initially, it was viewed as just another routine terror attack that killed civilians, and it would have remained so had it not been for the residents of Helmand province, who decided that they had to act.
Following the sit-in, a group of men decided to march for peace from Helmand to the capital, Kabul, walking more than 800 kilometers and crossing through several provinces to protest war and violence.
A dog: Sarana
The youngest peace activist has found a four-legged friend named Sarana along the way from Kabul to Balkh.
The street dog joined the activists when they departed Kabul for northern Balkh province on Aug. 10.
"At first we thought the dog will stop following us, but she didn't. We named her Sarana [observer] because she looks after every member of our group," Abul Malik Hamdard, a member of the movement, told VOA.
"Sarana would bark if she sees a stranger among us," Hamdard added.
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The movement demands an immediate cease-fire and the beginning of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
"All we want is peace. We need peace in Afghanistan, and we seek support for our demands," Mohammad Musa Azad, another member of the movement, told VOA.
Before heading to Balkh, the group launched a sit-in in July for several days in Kabul in front of the embassy of Pakistan and demanded that Pakistan end what the movement called covert support for the Afghan Taliban.
The peace movement also sent a bloodstained letter in July to the United Nations to protest against Taliban supporters.
Pakistan denies supporting the Taliban and maintains that the militant group controls a large swath of territory inside Afghanistan.
Not a US project
The Taliban warned members of the peace movement in early April to avoid going near areas under their control and instead instructed them to launch their protest near an Afghan and NATO military base. They also accused the movement of being a U.S. project.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesperson for the insurgent group, said in a statement that the peace marchers should talk about what he called the "occupation of Afghanistan."
"They are not speaking about the occupation or the withdrawal of foreigners. Their objective is that we lay down our weapons and accept the regime imposed by the invaders," Mujahid said.
Members of the movement, however, deny Taliban allegations that the group is a U.S. project and maintain that their movement is "grass-rooted."
"We are ready to be put on a trial if Taliban could prove that our movement is a U.S. project,' Zmarai Zaland, a member of the movement, told VOA.
Taliban continue to reject peace talks with the Afghan government and instead insist on talking only with the U.S.
The U.S. does not rule out talking with the insurgent group but continues to maintain that any talks with the Taliban should be Afghan-led.
In July, a U.S. delegation led by Alice Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia at the State Department, reportedly held preliminary talks with the representatives of the Taliban in Qatar.
The two sides are to meet again in September, according to a Taliban official, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The official told AP that they are waiting on a date from the U.S. to meet in Doha, Qatar.
The U.S. has neither denied nor confirmed meeting the Taliban, but Wells told a group of reporters at the State Department in July that recent developments, including the unprecedented cease-fire in Afghanistan, suggest that the Taliban will come to talks.
"You have an international community consensus that the Taliban leadership must engage with the Afghan government. It doesn't mean that they shouldn't engage with us, that we wouldn't engage with them in support of a peace process ... that's ultimately between the Taliban and the Afghan government," Wells said.
"I think the problem or frustration that [the] international community has is that the Taliban have never put forward empowered leaders to drive political negotiations," she added.
It has yet to be seen whether the Taliban would eventually agree to talks, but Hikmatullah and his friends are committed to press for peace.
VOA's Azizullah Popal, Jalal Mirzad and Mirwais Bezhan contributed to this story from Afghanistan.