Doha, Qatar – Six members were waiting as the doors opened and their counterparts entered the room.
It was an awkward moment. After nearly 20 years of violence, Afghan leaders and the Taliban were meeting face-to-face, adamant to defend their agendas behind closed doors.
Assalam-o-alaikum (peace be with you), one said, as the silence was broken and hands and hugs extended.
The faces were covered with masks – as part of the coronavirus regulations – but the hospitable Afghan tradition of the hug – a sign of welcome and appreciation – returned to the room.
After the greetings, members from both sides surveyed the formally arranged chairs, deciding where to sit.
“Let’s just put down one of our chadors on the floor and sit in a circle,” someone suggested, as smiles and laughs followed.
Some of those in attendance were jailed by the Taliban, some tortured by Afghan intelligence and then foreign troops. Some have had loved ones killed recently by the opposing side, others have spent their lives in prison in Afghanistan and abroad.
The woman, as part of the Afghan delegation, was no a stranger. She was part of the group, a small victory for not just making her presence felt in the first meeting but also as an ambassador for all Afghan women anxious about their future and freedoms as the Taliban formally begins the dialogue.
She pulled her sleeve over the bandage. Underneath it was a wound from when a bullet entered her upper right arm and left through the shoulder just a few weeks ago.
The conversation is formal but constructive. A quirky remark here and there keeps the conversation a bit more light-hearted.
A draft about the rules and procedures was put together in Kabul. In Doha, it was discussed, amended and trimmed by both sides. In just a couple of hours, new bonds were made.
But major issues, such as the future between a republic and a state, status of fighters and the army, rights of women and minorities, appear to be insurmountable challenges.
Pleasantries were exchanged and the two sides parted ways, taking with them the elephant in the room: Mistrust.
There is a trust deficit between the two sides who are still attacking each other in Afghanistan and then there is mistrust among each delegation with the government, within the Taliban, among the Pashtuns, Tajiks and Hazaras.
But that is not unexpected after 19 years of fighting which has ravaged Afghanistan and killed and displaced millions.
They met again to decide on the agenda of the talks aimed at charting out an agreeable version of “their” Afghanistan as the US gears up to leave.
With each meeting, the two sides are taking baby steps towards understanding and learning the art of agreeing to disagree.
Even the press releases were coordinated from the government-led delegation and the tightly compartmentalised Taliban.
It is no small burden, the future of millions of Afghan lives is at stake.