Sayed Abad, Maidan Wardak – The first time I heard the word اوربند, ceasefire, was in 2018 when the Kabul government and the Taliban announced a historic three-day armistice for the Eid al-Adha holiday.
Over those three days and the seven day “reduction in violence” this last February, I realized words aren’t enough to describe what even a short break in fighting actually means. In a country known in equal parts for its beauty and its decades-long conflicts, it means travel.
Most importantly, for millions it means the opportunity to go home. Afghanistan is riddled with provinces and districts that for years, if not two decades, have become impossible to travel to with certitude. Every journey to these areas is a 50-50 gamble with landmines, bandits, checkpoints setup by the Taliban and other armed groups and finding yourself caught in battles between the government and those armed groups.
But during a ceasefire, much of those fears dissipate and are replaced with a sense of cautious optimism that you can head out to a place you haven’t been to in years, if ever, or that you can go to your watan, homeland.
This year, on the third day of the Eid ceasefire — unexpectedly announced by the Taliban and reciprocated by the government — I went to meet up my friend in Sayed Abad, a district in the Eastern province of Maidan Wardak I hadn’t been to in three years.
Last time we went, in the summer of 2017, we found ourselves heading towards a battle between the Afghan security forces and the Taliban. The further ahead we got, the more intense the sounds of gunfire and grenades became.
If we turned back, we — a group which included two Afghan-Americans and an Afghan-Austrian — would have come under suspicion. If we continued on, we’d be driving straight into a battle. We were there for work, investigating the impact of drone strikes on civilians, but for countless numbers of Afghans, this is what returning home or going to see family means, coming face-to-face yet again with a war that has divided families both physically and politically.
Luckily, the driver knew of a shrine on the side of the road where we could wait out some of the fighting. All this while my mother’s cousin was expecting me for lunch in Kabul.
This time, however, because of the ceasefire, those fears were gone. We laughed and joked about how our friend who was usually so talkative and energetic rendered silent by her carsickness.
When we arrived in Sayed Abad, we spent much of the day walking around the family’s land, taking pictures, playing cards and even having my friends hold my phone as I gave a live interview for an international media outlet about the very ceasefire we were enjoying.
At one point while we were walking around the compound, our friend Nadima, who has a large online following in Afghanistan and abroad, started to make short videos to show her thousands of followers what it was like to be able to come to such a place.
She was full of exuberance as she described the different fruits and nuts that grew around us, how important it was to be able to hear the birds chirping and to taste what that’s actually fresh and not “plasticy” from a bottle. She told her followers how lucky we are to come from such a beautiful land, all with a look of utter joy on her face.
When she finished, I reminded her that all of this is only possible because of a ceasefire and that until there is a real end to the fighting, millions of people in the country will never be able to see a place like this and that Maidan Wardak will continue to be known only as a dangerous place.
But by the time dinner had been cleared it became certain that the online calls to the Taliban and the government to #ExtendTheCeasefire had not been heeded. That was when the reality, and the fear that comes along with it, set in.
Suddenly, the laughter gave way to serious, hours-long discussions of how we would make the two-hour journey back to Kabul in the morning.
The questions kept coming.
Would the ceasefire be broken immediately after midnight, or might the two sides wait a few hours before resuming their operations and attacks?
Was it better to leave in the dark when the roads were completely empty but we would also be blind to any possible checkpoints, or should we wait until the sun came up and we would potentially be easier to spot by suspicious snipers?
Where would we find an additional reliable car (drivers have been known to tip off Taliban of suspicious passengers) now that we had extra people with us? How could we ensure the safety of the two women with us? Should we go together back-to-back so that we face any possible dangers together or should we space out our journeys so one group scope the situation for the others? If we space out the timing, how long should we wait? If we wait too long is fighting more likely to start back up by the time the second group heads out?
For hours, we debated different answers to each of the questions over and over again.
While the others discussed, debated and analyzed countless plans, I began to fear what the night brings in the villages of Afghanistan – the airstrikes and night raids that have become increasingly common.
After all, I’d sat with families in this very district as they described the aerial strikes that destroyed their homes and killed their loved ones. In Khogyani district in Nangarhar province, I heard stories of raids into homes filled with women and children, the laundry still hanging.
The truth was once the ceasefire broke, danger was all around us.
It could strike at any minute. It could come from ground or the air.
When morning came, we had no choice but to surrender to the plan we had agreed on. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
We did all make it back to Kabul safe and sound, but that journey still serves as one small example of what a difference a few hours and two short words can make in Afghanistan.
It shows what day and night mean when there is no long-lasting peace