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Afghans in Kabul brush aside jitters on eve of vote

War-weary residents are unfazed by the preelection violence that has swept Afghanistan. 'I've seen so much war,' says one. 'It's my whole life. I don't know anything else. Why would I be afraid now?'

August 20, 2009|Laura King

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Mohammed Yosin was 9 when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, not long out of his teens when terrifying rocket duels between rival warlords leveled whole swaths of Kabul, a young man when the Taliban came to power, and breadwinner for his fast-growing family when U.S.-led troops arrived nearly eight years ago.

Like many in the Afghan capital, he views today's presidential election with more than a touch of fatalism, brushing aside jitters over a wave of insurgent attacks and threats in advance of the vote.

"I've seen so much war," Yosin said, pausing for a moment in the potholed roadway, balancing a battered bicycle with a load of tomatoes strapped to the back. "It's my whole life. I don't know anything else. Why would I be afraid now?"

Voting began this morning on schedule and under tight security. At a run-down school in central Kabul, people had already formed a line when the polls opened at 7 a.m. Everyone entering was searched, and police had blocked off both ends of the street.

"There's a risk coming here, but this is a day to make our future," said Mohammed Ibrahim, a 38-year-old office worker.

A stream of people emerged from the cardboard-partitioned booths, some proudly holding up their ink-stained right index fingers -- proof they had cast a ballot.

On the eve of the vote, there was ample reason for nervousness. At least six election workers died in attacks by insurgents. Six more American troop deaths were reported in Afghanistan's volatile south. And Taliban fighters engaged in an hours-long shootout with police in the heart of the capital, a clash that left three militants dead.

Yosin, whose ragged trousers, callused hands and broken teeth make him appear far older than his 39 years, was one of the few people out on the streets of Kabul on Wednesday. It was a national holiday, commemorating independence from the British and providing a reminder of the historic collision of imperial dreams and Afghan realities.

Most businesses were shuttered, and the city's usual roaring traffic jams subsided to nearly nothing. Even the laundresses who congregate daily on the banks of the Kabul River, scrubbing clothes in its dirty trickle of water, stayed out of sight.

Stray dogs skulked along crumbling mud-brick walls and open sewage ditches. A few ragpickers searched desultorily among piles of trash. Campaign posters that were pasted to walls and lampposts when the campaign for the presidency and provincial assembly seats began two months ago flapped in the hot wind, their garish colors fading in the punishing summer sun.

Wednesday brought a final flurry of preparations at about 6,000 polling stations around the country. This is only Afghanistan's second direct presidential election, and the logistical challenges are enormous. Election materials were still arriving at some sites. Many voting venues, high in the mountains or deep in the desert, are so remote that ballots were being delivered by helicopter or donkey train.

Many of Kabul's expatriates -- diplomats, aid workers, contractors -- were on lockdown, ordered by their employers to stay off the streets until the vote was over. But in the city's poorer districts, market stalls were open and patrons haggled over heaps of eggplant and piles of grapes. Nationalistic songs blared from an old radio, interrupted by bursts of static.

"I haven't got any money, so I have to work today, even without so many customers around," said Sayed Mujib, a street vendor of kishmish, a sweetened drink flavored with fruit and nuts.

Asked whether any of the presidential candidates -- the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, or his rivals -- would better the lives of Afghans, Mujib shrugged and pointed to the chunk of melting ice cooling his vat of syrupy liquid.

"My hopes are like that; they get smaller and smaller," he said.

A white surveillance blimp floated in the sky. It is a recently added security measure, intended as a bulwark against insurgent attacks, but suicide bombers have lately penetrated even the most heavily guarded precincts of Kabul.

On the vote's eve, the city bristled with checkpoints. When a taxi pulled over to drop off a passenger, a policeman banged the door with a rifle butt as a blunt message to move along. Some of the patrolling police officers appeared alert and watchful; others, lulled into lassitude by the heat of the day, lounged in the shade with cups of tea.

The vote, like Kabul itself, spotlights the ways in which traditions compete with modern mores. In a city where donkey carts creak their way past billboards for wireless-enabled cellphones, election workers expect to have to draw a firm line when some men turn up and demand to cast ballots for their wives as well.

As the afternoon call to prayer echoed through the streets, a Western military convoy sped along a thoroughfare. The few Afghan motorists on the road quickly scooted out of the way, fearful of being mistaken for suicide bombers if they ventured too close.

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