Kabul, Afghanistan – A pair of eyes, painted on a mural on the National Directorate of Security’s wall, looks on to the streets of downtown Kabul.
“I’m watching you. Corruption is not hidden from God or the people’s eyes,” the message next to it reads.
A mile away, on the walls of the Kabul Governor’s Office, a Banksy-inspired painting shows a man walking his camel with a huge heart on its back, a symbol of Afghans’ love for their country.
Over the past several years, amid unending bloody attacks, Kabul has become a city of walls.
Blast barriers embrace all public administration buildings and headquarters of foreign organisations.
The city is filled with kilometres of grey concrete, making Kabul look ominous.
To some, it appeared that the people in charge of the capital had divided public spaces, separating the Kabulis into two groups – those worthy and unworthy of protection.
People holding power, foreigners and international organisations hide safely behind the walls while Afghan civilians have no choice but to accept the deadly consequences of living in a war-torn country.
According to a New York Times weekly tracker, dozens of people have already been killed so far this month – including several victims in Kabul.
“I remember the times when you could walk everywhere in the city, I could ride my bicycle to any place I wanted to. There were no roadblocks, there were no ugly blast walls that you see. Until 2007-8 there were not many walls,” Omaid Sharifi, a local “artivist” and co-founder of the ArtLords initiative, told Al Jazeera.
“And then suddenly everything changed because of security issues. They started taking our space, the space that belongs to us, the citizens of Kabul. This space is taken by the foreigners, by government officials, all these people. They just started putting those ugly blast walls which made Kabul look like a prison.”
People treat you like a celebrity, but also as an infidel that should be killed.
In August 2014, Sharifi, along with a group of friends, decided to do something about their environment.
After several challenges, they finally won permission from state authorities and painted their first mural with the watchful pair of eyes: a reminder to politicians that people would not tolerate corruption.
Soon after, the group formed ArtLords, initially a self-funded collective seeking social change and reconciliation through art. Today they have 53 members, both staff and volunteers, offices in Kabul, Kandahar, Nangarhar and Balkh, plus a gallery and a theatre group working across the country.
Walls have become their canvases, filled with messages of social concerns: corruption, women’s rights, public health.
Between 50 and 100 people contribute to each mural, mostly passers-by, enthusiastic about the initiative.
“When I first saw their anti-corruption mural which says ‘I see you’ it really struck me, and at that point I decided that I want to work with them. They criticise the government and they have created a platform to voice people’s demands,” said Meher Ava, 25, an artist who has been volunteering with ArtLords for the past three years.
Khalida Alizada, 25, a Kabul resident, said: “Their paintings are beautiful, attract people’s attention and educate. They play an important role because they try to change the negativity of high stone walls which block streets and roads and use them to spread positive and beautiful messages.”
But the initiative has drawn negative reactions, too.
The group has long received threats from people who are against their worldview, ideas and art.
“If you want to do anything towards change, especially if it’s constructive change to bring about music, theatre, galleries, paintings, all of that, then you face a lot of backlash, but also a lot of support. People treat you like a celebrity, but also as an infidel that should be killed,” Sharifi says.
In July this year, ArtLords decided to go a step further.
With the US-Taliban negotiations in full swing at the time, the collective asked young people from six different provinces to write letters expressing their hopes, fears and solutions to the country’s problems. Within two months, they received 318 responses.
There was a reoccurring theme in the letters: the hope for a ceasefire and peace after 40 years of war.
“You just see how desperate people are. They are so fed up with all of this nonsense violence,” said Sharifi. “Every day I wake up to explosions and all of that, and the main theme was to stop this nonsense violence and let’s talk. Let’s find a way. Why are we getting killed every day? This is the simple thing in every single letter.”
ArtLords sent copies of all the letters to journalists, Afghan politicians, the Taliban and the US Embassy, all of whom agreed to read them.
Sharifi believes that peace is possible.
However, according to the artist, the real peace process will begin when all Afghans come together and start talking without outside pressure and the shadow of foreign troops on the Afghan soil.
Only then, he says, real change will begin.
“I have accepted the Taliban as a reality in this country. I think it is time for them to accept me. As a person who loves painting, music and dancing, as a person who has a gallery. It’s a diverse country and we have to find the time to talk, tolerate and speak to each other,” Sharifi said.
“What we want to do is spread some love, kindness, smiles. I think that people here need healing. I need healing. What we are doing right now is try to heal our country, our people, one person at a time.”