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October 2004
Living in Afghanistan: Jim Heilman's Fall Letter from Kabul
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Hello all,

The weather has turned here in Kabul and the nights are getting chilly. But the days are still sun and dust, sun and dust. Some Asian bank has just put up a half a million dollars to do an air quality study here. That's a laugher to most people - you don't need a study to know how bad it is. In fact the last study showed that the fecal matter content of Kabul air is off the charts. Suffice it to say that Kabul is not good for one's respiratory health.
The Presidential election here is only three days away; one would hope these are four very long days. From my days as the voter registrar, this is about the time that you start secretly praying for a couple days delay, because you are just not ready. Here, that concern is especially serious. While all the media focus has been on security issues, my concern has been the complex logistics of finding all the pollworkers, training them, getting them ballot boxes and ballots 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 for doing it (thankfully not me) are about one month behind in their planning. Yes, I think we'll have an election this Saturday. No, I don't think it will be a very pretty one.

Perhaps we are saved by the fact that Afghans haven't had any type of election for 35 years so they don't know what a good one is supposed to look like. Perhaps we are also saved by the fact that, being innocent and naïve about the election process, they don't really know how to "fix" it, how to stuff ballot boxes, or how to do all the other nefarious things that experienced campaigners can do to change the results.

My job here is to explain. Explain the voting process and the counting process to journalists, observers, party representatives, military, and whoever else will come and listen. I've got my little power-point dog and pony show and its mirror image in the local languages, performed by my Afghan counterpart. Sometimes I do it for 3 or 4 people; sometimes for 70. I like it, and hopefully 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.

The voters seem ready to go, even if the election machinery isn't. But what they are doing and why they are doing it is baffling to many. "Why are we voting for a President? We've already got a President!" is the feeling of some. Secret vote? What is that for? Afghan culture dictates that decisions are made by consensus after sitting around and talking about the issue at hand for hours on end. The idea of making important decisions by marking a piece of paper is, well, just plain weird to some. And in the remote rural areas, the high tech procedure of marking a piece of paper is somewhat foreign - many have never held a pen before and simply don't know how to make a check or an "x" or anything else.

Oh yes, I guess I have to mention the Taliban, al-Qaeda, warlords, and assorted other bad guys. They are fairly focused on making sure this thing doesn't work (as if the UN election chiefs 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 folk have been doing a pretty good job of finding them before they find us, but nobody thinks we'll have an easy time of it over the next few days. They might be "isolated incidents", but things are likely to happen - we all just hope we aren't in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My favorite time is spent going out occasionally on voter education junkets, wherein our trainers go to schools, villages and the like and meet with perhaps 30 or 40 people and tell them what this democracy and election thing is all about. Usually I'm taking some Western journalist so they can get their "slice of life" story about real people and elections.

Last week I went to a village about 2 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 do that because both I and her male translator could not enter the room where the sessions were going on. Once you're outside of 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 of the door 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. The mosque, like most everything else in the village, was a simple structure of mud brick - no fancy mosaic tiles and gilt cupolas here. The "audience" ranged in age from teenager to a wonderful 85-year old guy that found this whole election thing most amusing. These were augmented by a bevy of young kids just wanting to be around when something was going on (particularly when the "something" involved a six-foot tall, red-haired American woman). As soon as the kid pack grew to some critical mass, they were all shooed away with great vigor by the village elders, only to slowly re-emerge like a swarm of mosquitoes.

The voter education seemed to do well. 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 85-year-old man got quite a kick out of holding a sample ballot with pictures of all the candidates. He had a rough idea of who the pictures were. "Is that Karzai?" he asked.

Karzai is a Pashtun and so are all the residents of this village. Unfortunately for them, they are surrounded by nothing but Tajik villages, and Pashtuns and Tajiks don't get along very well. 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, who are 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 that serves as the entrance way to the mosque's only room. Now there's nothing but blue sky and twisted rebar. And who blew it out? We did. Seems that a group of Taliban were reported to be hiding in a building in the area (while our liberation of Afghanistan was going on). Somebody got the map coordinates wrong, and an American bombing run basically destroyed the place. Whether the "wrong coordinates" were a little prank by their Tajik neighbors (heh, heh, let's tell the Americans to hit their mosque), or incompetence on the part of American 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 now and nothing has been done. But I should note that the only building standing with all of its parts is a nice 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.

Jim Heilman (electronic mail, October 6, 2004)

Editor's Note: See also, Jim Heilman's Photo's from Hazara.

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