Frontline World

AFGHANISTAN - Without Warlords, October 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project

Rural Registration
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Boy in front of fruit stand

A poster telling voters that they will vote in secret hangs on the shop walls of a food vendor in the main bazaar of Chardeh, Ghorband, a village in Parwan province.
"Babulaal, we want to see you, take the veil from your face!"

So go the lyrics to a folk song from Khost, the capital of Paktia province, 100 miles south of Kabul. The lyrics are racy by some Afghan standards. Across Afghanistan's southern and eastern regions, tribal Pashtun traditions govern daily life. Rural women rarely leave their homes, and when they do, they wear the chadaree, which covers their faces.

Venturing out of Kabul for reporting in these areas of the country was not much of an option for me because of poor security and fighting. In much of the south and along the eastern border with Pakistan, U.S. military forces frequently battle so-called Taliban remnants. Approximately 14,000 American troops are still in Afghanistan.

One day, I jumped at the chance to travel with a reporter from Logar to his home province, one hour east of Kabul.

Entering Logar province, the driver warned us that we should brace ourselves for sudden stops. A few minutes later, we came to a tire-screeching halt before a bump in the road, one of many. At least the road is paved, I thought, which is rare in Afghanistan. During the drive, we passed patchwork tents of the kuchi, Afghanistan's pastoral nomads, and graveyards marked by their purple and green flags. Close to the road's edge, a group of men dressed in blue spacelike suits were working to de-mine a field.

rural landscape

A view of farm fields from the main road through Logar province, about an hour's drive from Kabul.
As in many parts of rural Afghanistan, village bazaars are located right off the main road leading through the province. On both sides of the road, Afghan shop owners set up businesses in shipping containers or small, mud-brick buildings. Often, these bazaars have a pharmacy, a restaurant and a butcher or two; skinned sheep and cows hang on hooks in the open summer air, attracting bees and flies.

"Wear your headscarf properly, we're in Logar," our driver said to me and the other female reporter. The few women I saw in public wore the chadaree, but we opted for our usual, simple headscarves.

We were here to look for election officials to ask about voter registration sites in the district. At one government department, an election worker, Mariam Khatiri, approached us and asked for a ride to a ministry of women's affairs office where we were headed.

"I came from Kabul, too," she told us. "You left Kabul without your chadaree? You're brave."

At the women's affair's ministry office, Khatiri lifted her chadaree, showing off purple lipstick sprinkled with silver glitter and heavy eyeshadow. Khatiri had been working in Logar for a few months, sometimes going to people's homes to register women.

office interior

Campaign posters for independent presidential candidate Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai are displayed on the windows of a campaign office in Bamiyan, a largely Hazara area where the Taliban blew up ancient Buddha statues. Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, a Pashtun candidate, opened an office in Bamiyan to broaden his base.
"Many women have shown a lot of interest in registering here," she said. "Men brought their daughters and daughters-in-law hand-in-hand."

Khatiri asked us if we heard anything about a recent rocket attack on a school here, where her colleagues were registering Logar voters. "I was worried about coming here today, but I needed to get paid," she said, stroking the head of her son, whom she brought along.

The attacks actually took place far away from the registration center, we found out later, but Khatiri's worries were not without merit. Taliban and other armed forces opposed to the elections taking place threatened to disrupt the process from the beginning. A few days after my trip to Logar, a bomb ripped through a bus carrying female election workers in Jalalabad, the capital of a neighboring province, not far from Logar. Twelve election workers were killed and 33 injured in dozens of attacks throughout the country since voter registration began last December.

voter cards

White pouches containing 100 registration receipts from voter cards sit in the Joint Electoral Management Body Secretariat, the organization charged with overseeing the Afghan elections.
We left Logar without visiting voter registration sites, which had moved deeper into the province, too far for us to make it back to Kabul before nightfall.

During the drive back, I climbed through the open sunroof to take a photo of the fields below the road. A Toyota truck with a Kalishnikov taped to the passenger side window pulled alongside us, and a man asked our driver if I was Afghan or kharijee, foreigner.

"Afghan," our driver said, and the truck drove ahead after lingering next to us for a few more moments.

Nobody was sure who they were.

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