In the 1950s, Helmand was sometimes called “Little America,” because of ambitious dam and canal projects there. But in recent years, it has become synonymous with the devastation of the long war, and the lives of residents in most of its districts have been uprooted.
It has remained a Taliban stronghold, and was the main site of former President Barack Obama’s Afghan troop surge, which brought tens of thousand of American soldiers, mostly Marines, to its villages.
As the total of civilians killed in well over a decade of fighting has reached the tens of thousands, Helmand has remained toward the top of each year’s casualty list. In 2017, the United Nations documented 3,438 civilians killed and 7,015 wounded across Afghanistan. With 386 civilians dead and 605 injured, Helmand was second only to Kabul, the capital, which suffered several large-scale bombings last year.
The Helmand residents’ protest came in the wake of more formal efforts to persuade the Taliban to sit down for negotiations. The insurgents have remained quiet about President Ashraf Ghani’s recent announcement of a comprehensive peace offer, which has received vocal support internationally and from elsewhere in the region.
On Thursday, there was an air of dejection and anger at the protest tent, but also of determination.
“On both sides, in every mosque, there is a funeral. Why is this? It’s because of our silence,” said Sarwar Ghafar, a local school principal. “Oh silent people, if you don’t break your silence you will remain a slave, remain a slave.”
Many of Mr. Ghafar’s comments were addressed toward the Taliban, disappointed at their rejection of the peace march.
“I called you brother, and your response was, ‘Go to Shorab.’ We could have both gone to Shorab together. We could have gone to every embassy, every conspirator, every meddler and occupier,” Mr. Ghafar said. “But you have your weapon against your own brother, your own sister, and you are packing vehicles with explosives against your own brother. Who are you blowing up? You are blowing up your own people.”
Qais Hashimi, another of the organizers, was crouched on the floor, wailing. He said both sides had demonstrated that they were “puppets of foreigners” and did not have authority to make decisions of their own.
“You have ruined life. Isn’t the taking of life up to God? Who are you to be taking lives? You kill yourself and you take 20 lives with you. I will just kill myself, a sacrifice for this country,” Mr. Hashimi said. “Our blood is finished, our tears have dried. We will not say another word. We will not eat.”