Independent Appeal: The Afghan peace mission

Kim Sengupta reports from Farzah on a group of rural elders trying to break the cycle of tribal violence

The ambush was lethally effective. Bursts from a Kalashnikov shattered the windscreen of a flatbed truck. Abdul Munna, the driver was shot through the head, yet somehow managed to open his door. But he was dead by the time his body hit the ground.

The killing on the road between Farzah and Kabul had nothing to do with the insurgency in Afghanistan. Mr Munna was killed because his brother had run away with a girl from a neighbouring farm. This was her family taking public retribution as tribal honour demands.

We arrived at the scene of the murder a few minutes after the shooting. The white Suzuki, splashed with blood, had halted askew on the side of the road. The corpse, left eye spilling out, sprawled beside the vehicle. Four children, gripping each others' hands, stood watching.

"We know who did it," said Colonel Mohammed Hashim Ahmedi, the district police chief, when he arrived. "We think he has gone off to Talakan; he has family there. We will catch him. But that will not be the end of the matter. There will be other killings; this will go on for a long time."

A car screeched to a halt. The dead man's brother, Jamal and a cousin, Jalil, came running. Both men wept as they vowed revenge. "They have killed him for nothing," shouted Jamal, clutching his hair. "We shall not let this go, there must be justice. We shall punish those who did this."

The official legal framework in Afghanistan has little effect in stopping blood feuds. Even if the perpetrators are caught by a police force suffering from corruption and inefficiency, and convicted in the notoriously ineffective justice system, the chances are that the violence would continue under the code of "blood for blood".

One attempt to stop the cycle of vendetta comes from a community-based justice system in which local elders mediate on cases ranging from land and water disputes to rape and murder. The idea of a shadow system running parallel to the law of the land is viewed with unease by many in the country. But the scheme, which is backed by the UK-based organisation Peace Direct, which is one of the charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas appeal, has proved to have widespread local approval.

Mirwais Wardak, a local partner for Peace Direct, said: "The problem is that if two men get into a fight in some of these areas, people don't say, 'It's Mohammed fighting Ahmed'. They say, 'It's someone from the Yusufzai tribe fighting one from the Gilzai'. Then you see how these things escalate."

The main pilot scheme is run by the Peace Direct-funded Centre for Peace and Afghan Unity, at Farzah, north-east of Kabul. There, an hour before Mr Munna was killed down the road, Abdul Razaq, the principal of the local high school and a village elder, was describing a feud which started a quarter of a century ago and claimed its latest victim last month.

The bloodletting started in an argument about water rights, though the exact reason has been lost somewhat in a haze of village folklore and conflicting claims. What is clear is that, about four years ago, Syed Mir shot dead Syed Mustapha and his two young sons. In October this year, a member of the Mir family was also gunned down. The killer, from the Mustapaha clan, declared that honour would not be satisfied until he had taken two more lives.

The decision of the elders, in consultation with the villagers, was that the Mir family should compensate Syed Mustapha's 15-year-old grandson with four hectares of land. But this is yet to be agreed by the Mirs, and the arbitration would continue while a truce of sorts holds. "I can understand people saying that the government should deal with things like this," said Mr Razaq. "But in these cases people will not go to the police because they do not trust them, and anyway that wouldn't be the end of the matter. The judgement reached by the elders would give the boy something for the loss of his father and grandfather and maybe protect him, and others in his generation, from getting killed and having to retaliate themselves."

The council has also dealt with social issues in which the judgement appears to have taken a notably humane interpretation of tribal codes. A widow facing a forced marriage to ensure an inheritance stayed in her late husband's family was returned home. Another woman had her right to a divorce from an abusive husband upheld despite threats from his clan. And the council has eschewed the traditional practice of ordering a family to send girls for marriage to another family to right a wrong.

But the disputes spiralling into a cycle of violent deaths have become the most pressing matters. Mirza Mohammed, a judge in tribal law, said: "The main aim is to settle matters before someone is killed, when that happens heads become heated and it becomes very difficult to control people."

One water dispute began when 18-year-old Syed Nasim spotted his 16- year-old cousin Iqran diverting water into his parent's land. After the ensuing fight, with knives and lumps of rock, both youths ended up in hospital. Their fathers, 55-year-old Sardar Mohammed Pacha and Sayed Rahim Pacha, 70, who are cousins, accepted arbitration by the council and agreed to their decision.

The youths say they have made up their differences. They seem relieved that the prospect of a vendetta has been lifted. Iqran, the younger, shook his head. "Maybe one of us would have killed the other," he said. "We are glad this hasn't happened. We are both young and we want to live. Anyway, there are too many deaths in Afghanistan; why add to them?"

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