Letter from Kabul: Ex-Albemarle registrar watches elections

(Kabul, Afghanistan– October 5, 2004) The weather has turned, and the nights are getting chilly. But the days are still sun and dust, sun and dust. Some Asian bank has just put up half a million dollars for an air quality study. That's a laugher to most people. The last study showed that the fecal matter content of Kabul air is off the charts. Suffice to say that Kabul is not good for one's respiratory health.


The Presidential election here is only four days away; one would hope these are four very long days. From my stint as Albemarle voter registrar, this is about the time when you start secretly praying for a couple days' delay, because you are just not ready.


Here, that concern is especially serious. While the media focus has been security, my concern has been the complex logistics of finding and training poll workers and getting them ballots and boxes– and getting all the stuff back in one piece to a place where the ballots can be counted. It's a tough one, and unfortunately those responsible (not me, thankfully) are about a month behind. Yes, I think we'll have an election this Saturday. No, I don't think it will be a very pretty one.


Perhaps we're saved by the fact that Afghans haven't had an election for 35 years, so they don't know what a good one looks like. Perhaps we are also saved by the fact that, being innocent about the election process, they don't really know how to stuff ballot boxes or otherwise skew the results.


My job is to explain the process to journalists, observers, party representatives, military, and whoever else will listen. I've got my little PowerPoint dog-and-pony show– and its mirror image in the local languages, performed by my Afghan counterpart. Sometimes I do it for three or four people, sometimes for 70. We hope we've had some success in raising people's understanding of what is going to happen Saturday and in the days thereafter. But I have this terrible feeling that what I tell 'em is going to happen isn't what's really going to happen.


"Why are we voting for a President? We already have a President!" some say. "Secret vote? What's that for?"


Afghan culture dictates that decisions be made by consensus after sitting around and talking about the issue for hours on end. To some, the idea of making important decisions by marking a piece of paper is, well, just plain weird. And in remote rural areas, the high tech procedure of marking a piece of paper is somewhat foreign– many have never held a pen and simply don't know how to make a check, an "x," or anything else.


Oh, yes, I guess I must mention the Taliban, al-Qaeda, warlords, and assorted other bad guys. They're focused on making sure this thing doesn't work (as if some of those involved in the planning and implementation aren't doing enough on their own to screw it up), so the rockets and bomb-rigged cars are becoming more numerous every day. So far, our military have been doing a pretty good job of finding them before they find us, but nobody thinks we'll have an easy time over the next few days. They might be "isolated incidents," but we all just hope we aren't in the wrong place at the wrong time.


My favorite times are voter education junkets, where our trainers go to schools and villages to meet with 30 or 40 people and tell them what this democracy-and-election thing is all about. Usually, I'm taking some Western journalists so they can get their "slice of life" story about real people and elections.


Recently, I went to a village about two hours from Kabul with a female reporter from the Chicago Tribune. While it would have been great to see one of our voter education sessions for women, we couldn't because neither her male translator nor I could enter the room. Once you're outside Kabul, the sex separation thing is nothing short of amazing. The drill for these situations­ if you're willing to do it­ is that the female Westerner can go in the room but stands next to the door, while the male translator stands on the other side trying to hear and translate.


Since that didn't sound like much fun to her, we went to a male session held inside the village mosque. Like almost everything else in the village, the mosque was a simple structure of mud brick-­ no fancy mosaic tiles or gilt cupolas here.


The audience ranged from teenagers to a wonderful 85-year-old guy who found this whole election thing most amusing. These were augmented by a bevy of young kids just wanting to be around something going on (particularly when it involved a six-foot-tall, red-haired Tribune reporter). As soon as the kid-pack grew to critical mass, they were all shooed away with great vigor by the village elders, only to slowly re-form like a developing swarm of mosquitoes.


When asked by the reporter whether the session was helpful, one youngish guy replied, "Yes! Before, we were asleep; now we are awake!"– a great plug for my agency and its work, which I was sure the reporter would use as the theme to her story. Dream on, Jim. The old man got quite a kick out of holding the sample ballot containing pictures of all the candidates, but he had only a rough idea of who the people were. "Is that Karzai?" he asked.


President Karzai is a Pashtun– and so are all the residents of this village. Unfortunately for them, they are surrounded by Tajik villages, and Pashtuns and Tajiks don't get along. As a result, this village has precious few houses that aren't in some state of destruction. They get no help from the "district" chiefs, all Tajiks. They have no water, no electricity, no nothing. Half of them live in tents they got from the UN when they started to return home after the Taliban left.


And then there's the mosque. A huge hole is blown out of the roof. And who blew it out? We did. Seems that a group of Taliban were reported to be hiding there during our liberation of Afghanistan. Somebody got the map coordinates wrong, and an American bombing run basically destroyed the place. Whether "wrong coordinates" were a little prank by Tajik neighbors or incompetence on the part of our troops (or maybe Taliban were hiding there) is something we'll never know.


The Americans came by a few days later, apologized, and said they'd fix things, but it's two years later, and still nothing but blue sky and twisted rebar. However, I should note that the only building standing with all of its parts is a new school built with American dollars.


So it's a different world over here. No swift boat captains, no hurricanes, no talk about "mixed messages," no overnight polls. But lots of real people trying to make their way in their new and confusing world. Kind of makes me want to stay.






 October 11: Election Day has come and gone– and it was a beautiful, amazing day. Afghans standing in perfect and peaceful lines (something they've never been known to do) waiting to vote for the first time in their lives. Women election officials in their ghost-like burkas trekking up dusty village roads toting their overflowing ballot boxes. And then... there was the ink. While the UN, the world, and the Afghans waited in agitated anticipation for al-Qaeda and the Taliban to do their thing, it was lousy ink markers that fairly spoiled the day. Not bombs, not rockets, but ink markers– proving yet again that the pen is mightier than the sword.