"We saw people suffering huge pain from the war ... Honestly, my conscience doesn't let me calm down. It hurts me and I ask myself: why we did not start working for peace earlier?"
By Qadir Sediqi and Mohammad Ismail
KABUL, June 18 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Afghan peace marchers arrived exhausted in the capital, Kabul, on Monday after spending the fasting month of Ramadan crossing the sun-baked, war-torn country, much of it under Taliban control.
The marchers, all men, including teachers, students and war victims on crutches and one in a wheelchair, were welcomed along the way by village women carrying the holy Koran, men singing and dancing or offering bread and yoghurt, some in tears.
"I saw and learnt things that I had never thought of before," said Iqbal Khayber, 27, a medical student from Helmand.
"We met people in areas controlled by the Taliban and in areas under government control - everyone is really tired of war."
The march was triggered by a car bomb in Helmand on March 23 that killed at least 14 people and wounded dozens. No group claimed responsibility.
Khayber said the marchers, varying in number from day to day, would take main roads and sometimes turn into villages, choosing dangerous areas on purpose to try to confront people's fear.
"We saw people suffering huge pain from the war ... Honestly, my conscience doesn't let me calm down. It hurts me and I ask myself: why did we not start working for peace earlier?"
Before Ramadan, the marchers were walking 30 to 35 km (18 to 20 miles) a day, but during the fasting month, when they could not take food or water during daylight hours, they slowed to 20 to 25 km per day.
In one area of Ghazni province, they were told by the Taliban not to enter an area because it was too dangerous.
"We met Taliban fighters and after an introduction, they told us we shouldn't have come here because the area is planted with bombs and they had planned an attack.
"After minutes of discussion with them, they seemed tired of it all, and the war. They directed us back to the safest area."
BLISTERED FEET, TEARS
In Ghazni on Sunday, the Taliban took six soldiers hostage, the governor's office said on Monday. The Taliban denied the accusation and said the six had defected. An acting district governor in Nangarhar province in the east was killed on Monday. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Mohammad Yasin Omid, 24, a teacher from Zabul province, said he joined the march on its 21st day.
"The group had already walked for 15 days. When I saw their bleeding and blistered feet, I could not control my tears so I decided to join them."
The Taliban are fighting to expel foreign forces, defeat the U.S.-backed government and restore sharia, or Islamic law, after their ouster by U.S.-led forces in 2001.
But Afghanistan has been at war for four decades, ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979.
Both the government and the militants declared temporary ceasefires for the end-of-Ramadan Eid al-Fitr holiday, leading to hugs and selfies between the two sides as militants emerged from their hideouts to enter towns and cities.
The Taliban ceasefire ended on Sunday. The government extended its ceasefire with the Taliban, which had been due to end on Wednesday, June 20, by 10 days.
The anti-war marchers, many of whom were taken to hospital for treatment for dehydration and blisters, said they won't stop in Kabul.
"We received support from the people in Kabul as we had expected," said marcher Badshah Khan.
"Now we will have sit-ins in tents and continue walking to other provinces to get more support."
(Writing by Nick Macfie Editing by Robert Birsel)
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