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August 21, 2017

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New Year's wish for Afghanistan: peace

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan -- Juma Khan took 24 hours to drive through some of Afghanistan's most treacherous insurgency hotspots to reach Mazar-i-Sharif, the focus of Saturday's New Year celebrations.

But for the truck driver from western Heart it was a dream come true to be among the thousands of people drawn to the northern city from the around the country to welcome in the year 1388 at the holy Shrine of Hazrat Ali.

And it gave him an opportunity to pray for a bigger dream: peace in Afghanistan.

"My biggest wish, for which I have come here, is to pray for peace in my country," Khan told AFP outside the blue monument built in honor of Ali, the fourth caliph of Islam.

Some Afghans believe that miracles can happen after a large pole is raised at the shrine, marking the first day of the New Year in a ceremony that draws tens of thousands of people.

"I'm sure Ali will help us make that happen," Khan said. "I have heard whatever you ask him for, he gives it to you."

The wish was shared among the myriad pilgrims to Mazar-i-Sharif, who included turbaned Pashtuns from the south, Tajiks in flat hats from the west, and Mongol-featured Hazaras.

They also included Mohammad Nasrullah, a businessman who travelled up from the southern province of Kandahar, where the Taliban insurgency is at its most intense.

"I'll pray for peace," the 55-year-old told AFP while strolling around the shrine's gardens of roses and fountains.

"In Kandahar we have no peace. The Taliban and foreign forces are both killing us, we have no security," he said, referring to the 75,000 international troops deployed in Afghanistan to fight the insurgency.

Afghanistan has been at war since the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. Last year, its most recent conflict — the Islamist insurgency — was its deadliest since the hardline Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.

Nearly 2,200 civilians were killed, most of them in Taliban attacks, but almost 40 percent in action by pro-government forces, according to the United Nations.

More than 5,000 insurgents also died, according to military officials, as well as hundreds of Afghan and international troops.

The growing number of foreign forces in Afghanistan has not been able to quell the violence and some Afghans believe 17,000 U.S. reinforcements due in the coming months may cause more unrest, putting them at greater risk.

"I want my country to be freed from the claws of the foreign forces," said Khatem Khan from the eastern province of Khost when asked of his wish. "They kill innocent people," he charged.

Recovery from an illness is another hope, the 52-year-old said while bargaining for a bracelet for a grandchild at one of scores of stalls and shops doing roaring New Year trade.

"On a normal day I was making, for instance, 100 afghani (two dollars)," said a shopkeeper in an underground bazaar, newly built in a spurt of post-Taliban reconstruction in a city which sees little of the insurgency.

"Now I make 1,000. Business is good," he said as women covered in white and blue burqas — tent-like Islamic veils — browsed through flashy clothes from China.

Outside, enthusiastic young men in slim jeans and tight T-shirts danced to popular tunes and singers belted out traditional songs in a festive atmosphere with colored lights trailing streets, kebab restaurants staying open late.

Camel- and dog-fighting competitions, kite running and the popular local sport of buzkashi were planned for the upcoming days.

But behind the spirited mood was a careful security plan with 2,500 men deployed in and around the city, deputy provincial police chief Abdul Rauf Taj told AFP.

And there were many visitors nursing anguish, such as Nik Mohammad, who had brought a young son paralyzed in a car accident last year.

"I've brought him to be cured here ... This is my last hope," he whispered, as the boy gazed at hundreds of white pigeons flying overhead.

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