Reporter’s diary: Afghan elections

Nick Clark on election fraud allegations, rumours and the merits of Afghan bread.

Afghan voter

Al Jazeera’s Nick Clark is in Afghanistan during a critical period.

The country held presidential and provincial polls as the US continues to shift focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. Thousands of US and UK troops have been engaged in pitch battles with the Taliban in the south.

The Taliban has struck back by targeting Kabul and threatened to attack those who voted on election day, August 20.  

Clark is keeping a log of life in the war-torn nation, the hopes and aspirations of its people as they wait for the elections results, and the stories they tell.

AUGUST 23,2009: Election fraud allegations

Rumours, speculation, bold claims and lots of bread – everyday life in post-vote Afghanistan[EPA]

Bread in Afghanistan is just incredible. I mean it. It is unbelievable – the sheer quantity of the stuff. And it’s good too.

Always good enough to save till last, which is what I’m going to do.

In the meantime, the small issue of who will be the next president of Afghanistan?

Despite all the assurances that we would have an indication of a result after 48 hours, so far nothing. Loads of rumour flying around, of course, and bold claims being made.

special report
Al Jazeera’s in-depth look at the presidential poll

It seems we will get a drip feed of results from Tuesday onwards, with a ‘preliminary’ confirmation on September 3.

In the meantime all the complaints and allegations of fraud have to be addressed. The list is growing.

We interviewed the chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan who said he had cases of underage voting and various fraud issues, including, as always, this recurring theme of a low turnout in the south.

Basically the south is a big Pashtun area which last time round supported Karzai. He’s quite dependent on their vote. So if the turnout was very low, it may have serious implications for his chances.

We also interviewed Fahim Dashty, the editor of one of the city’s newspapers, the Kabul Weekly. He’s a walking, talking, story himself.

He was badly injured when the revered, by some, Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood was killed by Al Qaeda suicide bombers posing as cameramen in 2001.

Fahim was in the room, filming the event when the blast went off.

He said he truly hoped fraud issues would not incite trouble.

Home of Peace

We drove 30 minutes out of the city to the Darul Aman Palace. It is, for all the world, like a film set from a war epic. It commands a small rise and is surrounded by dry, empty, fields. It was once a glorious many-roomed statement of prosperity. 

The fact that it is now standing at all seems a miracle. It was absolutely nailed in the civil war in the 1990s. It changed hands so many times with varying Mujahideen factions, people lost count. 

Everywhere you can see signs of fierce gun battles; walls riddled with bullet holes, staircases hanging off pillars and the remains of an ornate column-top in pieces in the courtyard.

Shell, bomb and Kalashnikov have all had a rare old time here.

And yet, there it is, like a monument to Afghanistan’s darkest hour. In the civil war, 100,000 Afghans were killed in Kabul alone. Afghans killed by Afghans. It’s been decided the building is to stay, untouched, as a reminder.

Just to throw in a little irony – Darul Aman means Home of Peace.

Breaking bread

Now, that bread. Wherever you drive in Kabul you’ll see bread, flat breads, round breads and long breads. Probably more bread than even melons, of which many thousands are sold in the city. They say the Afghan melon is the juiciest, most delicious in the world.

Bread hangs like washing on a line in shop windows. It’s piled up on donkey carts, trundling through the dusty streets. Dough is being pummelled in dark corners. It is just everywhere.

The Holy Month of Ramadan began yesterday, so no food from dawn till dusk. Around seven in the evening our driver pitched up with a big pile of Uzbek round breads, just baked and still warm. We sat round and tore large bits off, smearing them with processed cheese. Did the trick with bells on.

Outside the bureau on a little square of grass surrounded by rosebushes, our Afghan team of drivers, guards and technicians sat cross-legged. They were animatedly watching the favourite sport of wrestling on an old flickering telly.

These guys are the engine room of our operation in Afghanistan. From stringers around the country in remote and dangerous areas to our cook in the bureau, hats off to the lot of them.  

August 21, 2009: Kabul voted in relative peace
Even the disabled braved the threat of violence and came out to vote [GETTY]

We sped through the city at 3am on voting day, heading for the bureau to start a day which could go in any direction. The Taliban had instructed their operatives to put their plans into effect across Afghanistan.

There was potential for widespread violence.

In the black empty streets, security guards stood at their posts – they didn’t exactly look threatening, more half-asleep, caps half-cocked as they lazily watched us whip by.

In the bureau, various bodies were sprawled about under Afghan blankets; there hadn’t been much point going home as Al Jazeera had started going live from Kabul round the clock.

Just after 7:40am, it seemed to us the tone for the day was set, when a low boom echoed across the rooftops of Kabul – an explosion just on the outskirts of the city.

News started filtering through of explosions in Kandahar, the volatile south. It seemed things had begun.
As the day progressed the reports of violence kept coming in but not on the scale some had feared.

There was certainly disruption, polling stations were hit. And in some areas, particularly in the volatile south, voters were certainly dissuaded from voting by the Taliban threat.
Kabul was relatively peaceful. The odd explosion; once a crackle of gunfire, that was it.

News focus instead steered toward the issue of potential fraud. It seemed the supposedly indelible ink that voters dipped their fingers into to prevent voting a second time, had washed off in certain cases.

One of those who cried foul was Ramazan Bashardost, number three in the presidential race.

President Karzai has responded by saying he tried to wash the ink off his finger several times and that it was still there.

Three of our Afghan staff went to vote, at three different polling stations – all of them washed the ink off.
Inkygate could be here for some time. It would be funny if it weren’t so potentially serious.

August 20, 2009: An uneasy anticipation
An unworldly red hangs over the crests of the foothills of the Hindu Kush surrounding Kabul [GETTY]

I am writing this at sunrise on election day from our rooftop broadcast position. Polls open in an hour or so.

It has a stunning, beautiful dawn, the sky an unworldly red over the crests of the foothills of the Hindu Kush which surround Kabul.

It’s hard to describe what the feeling is here in the city – I guess a kind of uneasy anticipation.

No one is really quite sure to what degree the Taliban will live up to their threat to disrupt this election. 

Certainly incidents in the past few days would make you think there is worse to come today. The Taliban say their operatives are in place and have been instructed to carry out their plans.

Here in Kabul, intelligence services believe there are suicide bombing cells within the city, ready to strike. We’ll see what the day brings.

This is a land that has endured three decades of war. Think of that – 30 years.

Many have grown up knowing nothing of peace – life is lived in perpetual wartime.

Despite the troubles, the vast majority of the people of course want peace. They want to look to a future where daily life isn’t always framed in violence.

Go the streets and markets of Kabul and you see real life. A bustling, compelling, dangerous city.

Coconut sellers pushing their barrows, flicking the white flesh in the halved shells with water to keep them fresh. A guy selling potatoes – he used to be a university professor. The street kids picking through the rubbish of the upmarket areas with the million dollar poppy palaces behind.

But on every corner there is a Kalashnikov or a sandbagged gun post. The gun is a way of life.

But if these elections can be believed, trusted by the people, whoever wins, Afghanistan could just have taken a big step forward.

Credibility is the key.

August 19, 2009: A sombre reminder in a corner of solitude

The team woke to a loud boom – rather like a container lorry going over a speed bump.

It turned out to be a rocket landing in the presidential palace not far from our hotel. Another landed in the city around the same time.

Western soldiers from centuries of warfare are buried in cemeteries in Afghanistan [GALLO]

No one was hurt in those strikes, but in Kabul and across the country, the victim count had been growing every day in the build-up to election day.

One day all this will be a part of history – there’s already enough of that around in Afghanistan.

We filmed in Sherpur Cantonment, the old British area of Kabul.

Behind a high mud-brick wall and through a solid pair of wooden gates rests an old cemetery known here as the White Graveyard.

Many people from the West who died in Afghanistan are buried here.

If ever there was a place that epitomises the difficulty, maybe impossibility, of conducting a war in Afghanistan, this is it.

Among the trees and rose bushes, lies evidence of three failed British campaigns dating back to the 19th century. Men who died fighting for a cause that was never achieved in the Anglo-Afghan Wars, denied by fearsome Afghan fighters.

There is a large cracked gravestone that has been set back into the cemetery wall. You can just about make out the date – 1879. It marked a mass grave that contains 29 soldiers of the 67th Foot Regiment, gunned down in a battle to take a hilltop stronghold on the outskirts of Kabul.

The list of names fading into the weather-beaten stone – Carlisle, Gamble … on and on.

Buried here are also the assorted ranks who venturers who never made it home – hippies who lost the trail, explorers, and journalists.

Gayle Williams, an aid worker gunned down last year by two assailants on a motorbike, is buried here.

And then we find more British military deaths remembered – this time from a modern and current campaign.

Soldiers who have died since 2001. Names etched into black marble – men who died like their forefathers did more than a century ago – in a strange land, a million miles from home.

It is a moving, rather sad corner of solitude in this violent city, a sombre reminder of the dangers of conducting a war in Afghanistan.

August 17, 2009: Flying into Kabul

Flying into Kabul always has its moments. Not least because you never know who you’’l be sitting next to. Everyday planeloads of aid workers, tattooed security men, Afghan politicians, military personnel and journalists drop out of the sky into the beleaguered city.

I say drop, because that’s what happens. The former US pilot I was sitting next to told me all, as we rapidly descended from 30,000 feet, the great brown sweep of mountains below rapidly approaching.

He said pilots take no risks flying into airports like Kabul. A quick descent is the best way to avoid a potential anti-aircraft strike – an unlikely event even here – but worth making yourself a hard target nonetheless.

Apparently the plane gently dropped to 27,000 feet and from there the nose went down and we did a controlled plunge toward Kabul. I’m not entirely sure my flying experience was enhanced by the running commentary but all knowledge is good I guess!

And so to a city on edge.

Saturday’s brazen suicide attack which killed eight at Nato’s headquarters, has ramped up the tension. If the Taliban can strike in one of the most heavily fortified parts of the capital, anything presumably can happen at any time.

The election is on everyone’s minds. Posters of all the candidates are wrapped round lampposts, pasted across walls, half ripped off hoardings.

Karzai, Abdullah, Ghani and the rest of them look down at you from every possible vantage point wherever you go in this simmering, compelling dangerous city.

We’ve been talking about this for a long time but now we’re almost there. Campaigning is done and we’re on the final approach to election day. The world prays for a smooth landing.

Source: Al Jazeera