Wearing gym shorts and dress shoes, or a traditional shalwar kameez and flip flops, around 40 young people of mixed gender gathered over the weekend to do something that would once have been unthinkable in Afghanistan – to ride their bikes together.
Cycling across the capital Kabul in an attempt to promote young people’s voices amid the current peace talks, the riders were headed by organiser Ahmad Walid Rashidi, 30, who says he came up with the idea two weeks ago, naming the event Peace on Wheels.
Under Taliban rule between 1996 until the US-led invasion in 2001, a mixed-gender bike ride would have been impossible due to the strict imposition of gender segregation, with women largely confined to their houses. But Kabul has changed over the past two decades.
While first direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government are currently under way in Qatar’s capital Doha, many Afghans, including the young, post-Taliban generation, fear current rising levels of violence and an eventual return of the militants.
There are no plans laid out for a permanent ceasefire yet, and a deal will likely see the Taliban share governance.
Mr Rashidi was born in Kabul but now lives in Denmark, having left his homeland after he was hit by a bullet at the age of five, losing his leg below the knee.
He was taken to Germany for medical treatment and a prosthetic leg with the help of a non-profit, but by the time he returned to Afghanistan, his brother and father had both been killed.
He fled to Iran in 2000 with the rest of his family, a year before the Taliban’s defeat and was later granted asylum in Denmark.
Spreading the message of peace
Mr Rashidi, who now visits Afghanistan frequently to carry out humanitarian work and peace activism, took part in the bike ride with the help of his prosthetic leg.
"We want people to see that the young generation cares deeply about peace," he told The National.
"That's why we're biking. Many people have stopped us on the way to ask what we're doing – and that's the way we are able to spread the message of peace."
Since leaving Afghanistan, life has not always been simple for Mr Rashidi. In 2014, he travelled to Syria to look for a friend's teenage twin daughters, who had left their homes in Manchester, UK, to join ISIS. He was detained for 36 days by the extremists, and the twins decided to remain in Syria.
In July this year, while on vacation in Greece’s capital Athens, he was also brutally attacked by a mob of men shouting abuse at him amid a strong wave of anti-refugee sentiment in the country, having been mistaken for a migrant. Yet he is still committed to helping his home country combat violence.
“Afghanistan is undergoing a period of transformation and, with the peace talks, we’re entering an important time in history. Young people’s voices have not been heard so far, and this needs to change. We’re Afghanistan’s future,” he said.
“Many of us are afraid of losing what we have achieved over the past few decades. I want this to be the last generation to have to shed tears; the last generation facing war.”
One of the first women to arrive at the ride was Mahno Sadat, 17, a student and freestyle cyclist who said the young generation need to help bring about change.
“I only found out about the ride last night, but I knew I had to join,” she said, arriving wearing a camouflage jacket and warm winter boots.
“We need to see big changes in Afghanistan, and those will depend on the international community, but also every single Afghan, including the young generation.”
Farahnaz Kharami, 15, admitted she had initially been afraid to join.
“I arrived early in the morning, but mainly saw boys and men with their bikes. I was worried and also wasn’t sure it would be safe,” she said.
“I went home to tell my mum but she sent me straight back and encouraged me to participate. I’m glad I did. I’ve been riding my bike for a few years, but I like tying it to promoting peace.”
While many brought their own bikes, Mr Rashidi – who speaks fluent Dari, English, Danish, Arabic and German – organised enough rental bicycles, helmets, face masks and snacks for all participants, saying that he had fundraised for the event among friends and contacts.
The cyclists passed Kabul’s Darul Aman palace, a historical landmark destroyed during decades of war and recently refurbished, as well as the city’s old centre alongside the river, eventually gathering for breakfast after about 20 kilometres.
Many young people said they felt responsible for Afghanistan’s future, hoping to encourage and promote peace in what they described as a “critical situation”.
Mr Rashidi, who hopes for Peace on Wheels to turn into an annual event, said that he wanted to see more events “spreading positive energy” in Kabul.
“Our goal is this: We want to live in a peaceful community where everyone – boys and girls, women and men – can enjoy their life and be able to move freely to all of Afghanistan’s corners," he said.