One year ago, on May 18, 2018, a brave civic activist, Hidayatullah Zaheer, was killed at an attack on the Ramazan cricket tournament he had organized in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. What had begun as a pleasant outing for young people to celebrate peace and unity, and to have some respite from pervasive fear in their lives turned into an ugly night of destruction and deep sorrow.
Today, as peace talks with the Taliban generate both fear and optimism in the country, it is important to reflect on the courage of activists like Zaheer, and their vision and struggles to promote peace in the most difficult environments.
He set up computer labs in the remote border areas where no one else would go.
Zee, as those who knew him called him, was a fearless grassroots activist known for his ability to bring people together and give voice to the most marginalized, and to imagine a better future. He led a youth network called Watan Pala Zwanan (or ‘youth for the public interest’) from across eastern Afghanistan that provides support to local communities, and mobilizes young people across communities behind a vision of inclusive peace.
Zee creatively sought ways to engage in the most complex environs. His tools were those of cricket matches that served as an escape valve in highly insecure environments, providing an outlet for frustration when tensions become particularly high.
Or traditional and large-scale cultural events, like art and poetry festivals, to create opportunities for interaction, solidarity and connections between urban and rural communities while taking back public spaces from those trying to destroy them.
He set up computer labs in the remote border areas where no one else would go, harnessing technology to provide new ways to mobilize peaceful groups and address the basic human need to be connected to the outside world.
He organized iftars for the poor and homeless, blood drives to support the troops and civilian victims of war, the first National Women’s Day in Jalalabad, and had just embarked on establishing an all-women’s cricket team and academy. These self-organized activities provided people with hope, dignity, and courage to stand together to fight for peace and justice.
Zee was one of those rare people who had moral courage, believing in a common humanity across borders - a true visionary and leader.
Zee was only 32, but in his short life he had developed a clear vision of what peace looked like and how to get there – from the bottom up, working for the people and believing in them and their capacity to change things for the better, as long as they were empowered and supported.
Zee was one of those rare people who had moral courage, believing in a common humanity across borders – a true visionary and leader.
He was demanding in his aspirations for his country, and embodied the values that could inspire others to act. His vision for a better future was matched by fearless risk-taking and hard work that could help make it a reality. He and his colleagues’ ability to mobilize tens of thousands of young people against a variety of forces – extremists, corruption and warlords – had increasingly made their work more and more dangerous, and yet they never quit and expected others who shared their values to stay the course.
More than anyone we’ve ever known, he understood the critical need for teamwork, collaboration, and building mutual networks of support across institutions, sectors, communities and geographies.
Calling for a ceasefire
We will always mourn Zee, the values he represented, the hard-work he did, and it will take a long time to absorb and accept what happened. But we also know that our grief is miniscule compared to those of the young men and women of eastern Afghanistan who he worked with and empowered – and they are the ones who suffer from his loss. This is why it is ever more important for us to ensure that his message and vision for peace be carried forward with the same urgency, courage and fearlessness that he always demonstrated across his short life.
Now is the time to support brave activists, women and youth across Afghanistan… and to include them in all discussions and processes towards peace and justice.
Now is the time to support brave activists, women and youth across Afghanistan who sacrifice and put their lives at risk for a greater cause, and to include them in all discussions and processes towards peace and justice. Today, they call for a ceasefire that can create the space for Afghan citizens across all walks of life to participate in peace discussions. It truly is people like Zee and other activists waging peace that bring words into reality on the ground.