Thursday, September 10, 2009

Kandahar votes

(I wrote this essay for the Sept. 10, 2009 issue of the Pacific Northwest Inlander.)

BOOM.

The explosion startled me awake, sending my pulse racing. Dark grey light filtered into the room. I turned my head to look at my travel alarm clock next to the guesthouse bed: 4:42 a.m.

It was an ominous beginning to Afghanistan’s presidential election day. For the first time in five years, Afghans were being asked to choose their president. Of 31 candidates, three stood out: Would it be American favorite Ashraf Ghani, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah Abdullah or incumbent Hamid Karzai?

BOOM.

4:51 a.m. This one was louder and closer. I felt the room tremble.

My National Public Radio colleague in the next bed, Soraya Nelson, sat bolt upright. There was no going back to sleep now. Soraya powered up her computer, and I headed for the shower down the hall.

If there are foreign journalists in Kandahar, they are likely staying at the Continental Guesthouse: the small, guarded hotel has so far been spared attacks from insurgents or criminals. On this visit to the birthplace of the Taliban, we shared the guesthouse with a news crew from Al-Jazeera English and British and German newspaper journalists, as well as a group of Western election observers and their bodyguards.

In the bathroom that morning, I stepped under the stream of water. BOOM. The power went out and I was washing in near darkness.

BOOM.

***

In an effort to prevent car bombs at polling places, driving on Election Day was prohibited, except for those with a special permit issued by police to government officials, election observers and a handful of journalists.

The ban emptied Kandahar’s dusty streets. Except for the occasional pedestrian, the normally bustling market places and main avenues were quiet. Shops were shuttered, their corrugated metal garage doors padlocked. Contingents of Afghan National Army soldiers occupied checkpoints at the main squares.

The city felt like it was holding its breath.

***

At Ahmed Shah Baba High School, Afghan police searched male voters for weapons as they trickled in to the polling center. President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, voted and spoke to the small press corps, before his bodyguards whisked him away in a shiny black SUV with tinted windows.

BOOM: 10:36 a.m.

People on the street outside briefly recoiled at the sound of the rocket before continuing on their way.


BOOM: 10:54 a.m.

After the explosion near Zaher Shahi High School, a Canadian military convoy raced past on the empty street.

A woman in a rose-colored burqa, her two young sons in tow, paced outside the main gate of the school, looking lost. Sapnah, 21, had been walking in the roasting sun for 20 minutes trying to find a women’s polling station. Because of the danger, her husband had forbidden her from leaving the house, but she defied him. She was determined to cast her vote for Kandahar native Hamid Karzai.

“I have this,” she said, indicating the voter registration card clutched in one hand, “and I want to use it.”


Zarghouna High School was one of a handful of women’s polling places. At midday, the center, big enough to accommodate hundreds of voters, was devoid of all but three. Officials walked back and forth down the expansive halls, past classroom doors painted bright green. Election workers waited dutifully at their stations next to empty voting booths.

I asked a poll worker named Maryam where all the voters were.

“They are afraid,” she said. “They had to stay in the house.”



***

The rocket that killed Jamila came at 12:30.

The 10-year-old was helping her mother prepare lunch in their mud hut, when a rocket hit a tall building next door. The rocket exploded, sending shrapnel through the cardboard roof of the family's small dwelling below.

Jamila died instantly.

In Kandahar, rockets killed another person and wounded three more. It’s not even safe for people to stay home. There is no security, period. Not for Afghans, not for anyone.



***

According to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), nearly 30,000 foreign troops are stationed throughout the South. The NATO military conducts operations in five provinces from the main headquarters at Kandahar Air Field just outside the city.

Yet, international forces have not been able to make Kandahar safe. Politically-motivated kidnappings, assassinations and rocket attacks are common. Some areas of the city, to the west, north and south, are no-go zones for Kandaharis—places controlled by insurgents and criminals. Sometimes a neighbor or friend simply disappears, never to be heard from again. Violence against women has increased across the board. Female politicians, teachers, rights activists, schoolgirls—none are safe. In the weeks before the election, the Taliban circulated threatening leaflets and radio broadcasts, promising punishment for anyone who voted, thickening the air with fear.

Just ask anyone: the Taliban are back, they are operating in Kandahar city and Afghans are rightfully terrified.

***

The outcome of Afghanistan’s presidential election is murky at best.

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the Afghan Constitution mandates a runoff election. Although Hamid Karzai currently has 54% of the vote, the Electoral Complaints Commission is investigating hundreds of “priority A” allegations of election fraud--those complaints considered serious enough to affect the results. On September 8, the Commission announced that it had "found clear and convincing evidence of fraud in a number of polling stations" and demanded a partial recount. Thousands of votes have been thrown out.

Nobody seems to know how long it will take to sort out, but it could take months.

In Kandahar, the violence has grown worse. I was already back in Kabul when, five days after the election, a massive truck bomb exploded outside of a Japanese reconstruction company, killing at least 40 people and wounding 80. The explosion reduced an entire city block to rubble.

And at the Continental Guesthouse, where just a few days before I had slept, ate and worked, the force of the blast blew out all the windows.


1 comment:

namz said...

And to think, many people in the US don't even bother to vote. Hope those that risked their lives get to live their lives in a better Afghanistan.