Afghans don't look forward to voting day

AFG181015ZH010Qalaye Fatooh, Afghanistan --Every morning, the muddy, ramshackle home of Abdullah Sarwar on the highest hill in Qalaye Fatooh is one of the first to be hit by the sun.

From this hill in a slum near Kabul, he can see the shiny, tall buildings and new roads of the capital, constructed from the international aid that has flowed in the post-Taliban era.

But here, locals say have seen little of that progress or attention.

That's why, when voters go to the polls on Oct. 20 to choose from more than 2,500 candidates vying for seats in the 249-member parliament – a vote that is the first Afghan-organized and run parliamentary election since the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001 – many voters in this district, and across Afghanistan will ignore it.

“I refused to register for this election,” said Sarwar, who sits in his small worn-out wooden booth, where he repairs shoes to pay his rent and feed his family of nine. “In fact, none of my family registered."

"I went to the polls in the past but who cared about us? No one," he added. "These (candidates) will not either."

Qalaye Fatooh is a poor village a few miles from the capital that began to develop six years ago after Afghans from across the country took refuge there, either to escape the Taliban or high rents in Kabul. It currently has up to 2,000 families, no one is quite sure.

Here, most people live in houses made of mud that provide the barest shelter from the sun, wind and snow. Most don't have access to regular electricity or running water. Many, like Abdullah, are not even 100 percent certain of their last name.

Employment is irregular, and most residents are barely literate, and are self-employed in businesses that serve the community such as vendors of goods or barbers.

Jobs, or any way out of the desperate poverty that marks this district, is the one of the two single biggest concerns. The other is the insecurity that marks much of the country, and the violence that has been steadily worsening over the past few years.

In the first six months of the year, almost 1,700 civilians have been killed in terror attacks by the Taliban and other groups, the highest number in a six-month period since the United Nations began recording a decade ago.

Now, militants have vowed to disrupt the elections, and have already targeted voter registration centers and campaign rallies across the country.
Sarwar says he longs for the peace he had growing up in his home town in Logar province, to the south. But things heated up there as the Taliban took over his village last year, and he left for Qalaye Fatooh to protect his family.

Even so, he feels the Taliban's presence here in Qalaye Fatooh, he said, as they come to the village and its surrounding to shop or see family and friends.

That presence along with the threat of violence and terror has kept campaigning in Qalaye Fatooh lower key than in Kabul or other cities in Afghanistan. Even so, some candidates try, showing up and promising voters jobs and peace.

Even so, many voters here and across the country say they are too afraid to go to the polls.

“My husband told me that the Taliban will kill us if we attach election stickers to our national IDs,” said Bibi Saeeda, 47, of Qalaye Fatooh, mother of eight, referring to the stickers needed to be eligible to vote that most of her relatives and neighbors are avoiding. "We are surrounded by Taliban-affiliated militants (here): They are aware of each step we take – for our own safety, we have to go along with them.”

Seven members of Bibi Saeeda's family are eligible to vote. Only two – her husband and eldest son – will do so. The situation has dismayed Mahbooba, Saeeda's daughter who just turned 18. She was looking forward to voting in her first election.

“I was so excited about being 18 and having the right to vote,” she said, echoing other young voters in this area, and across the country. “I was very keen to stand behind that ballot box and cast my ballot.”

So far, Qalaye Fatooh has been spared violence in the run up to the election. But folks here remember vividly when military convoys were targeted by the Taliban's suicide bombers on the road that connects the city to Kabul several times over the past years.

Moreover, most here in this district remember vividly the violence from their hometowns and villages.

The Afghan government says it plans to deploy 50,000 armed forces – and put thousands more on alert – across the country on election day, to ensure a peaceful vote.

While many remain deeply skeptical over that promise, some still say they will ignore the threat.

“I will happily go to the polls,” said Abdullah Haidari, 25, who distributes carpet-weaving materials to the locals, and voted in the 2014 election. “Despite the Taliban presence, I believe nothing will happen, Inshallah. For a better future and peaceful life, I am determined to cast my ballot again.”

Many say it's very important to do so, to make Afghanistan a better place.

“I want to vote for the one who aims to serve the country,” said Noor Ahmad Ahadi, 24, a first-time voter who is barely literate, standing in his small barbershop in this district decorated with posters of Afghan models.

“Now candidates come to us offering 5,000 to 10,000 Afs (USD $66-$133) for our votes, but I know those who ask our votes in exchange for money will never serve us," he added. "So I will vote for the one who comes up with a plan and ensures me that it can work for our better future.”

But Sarwar says it's all for nothing. Candidates' attention lingers only so far as to get votes, as he points, incensed, to a host of election posters with campaign slogans that have been pasted onto his booth.

“It's nothing more than deceit,” he said.

Photo: Oct.15, 2018 – Kabul, Afghanistan – Abdullah, 70, is the breadwinner of a family of nine. He was displaced by the Taliban a year ago and now lives in Qalaye Fatooh, where he can barely pay the rent and feed his family. He is pessimistic about the upcoming election and it's outcome and says he's not eager to go to the polls.
Credit: Zakarya Hassani/ ARA Network Inc. (10/15/18)

Story/photo published date: 10/18/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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