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Saturday, September 18, 2004

blogview: voter registration in afghanistan  

A good friend of mine is deployed “somewhere” in Pakistan as an Operations Officer for the International Organization for Migration's Out-of-Country Voting Initiative for Afghanistan. She recently sent me an e-mail discussing her experience abroad and with her permission I’m sharing some of her insights.
*Please post comments so that she can read them, she's now being deployed in-field!*

What are you doing?
I’m working as a voter education officer for the United Nations/IOM Out of Country Registration and Voting Afghanistan. I create public information programs to encourage Afghan refugees to participate in the political process. Dream work!
(note: seriously this is so cool, she’s been active in this type of stuff since, well, we were scruffy teens!)

What’s day-to-day life like in Pakistan?
The security is pretty thick around here, armed guards day and night, shatter-proof glass, etc. We’re under surveillance by the Pakistani secret police and have good reason to believe the offices are bugged. I’ve heard its standard for an operation like this, so I don’t think there’s much to be worried about. We’re not supposed to walk around alone, but I shirked this rule after consulting the locals. Not being able to go out on your own for a walk or for a browse at the marketplace is no fun. I’m not taking any chances, but I think its harmless enough so long as you stick to areas where expatriates are welcome and observe the dress code and customs – I always wear the chador, a huge scarf that covers the hair, neck and upper body and the salwar kameez, which is a long tunic paired with wide trousers.

What do people think of Americans?
When asked where I am from, I respond, “Belgium.” To say you’re American is the social equivalent of telling someone upon first meeting them that they fornicate with their mother. After the initial shock, the response will range from talk about pop culture to marking a target on your body. Best not to take chances!

How would you describe Pakistan?
Pakistan is beautiful. Reminds me of California -- very hilly and rocky, green in parts, desert in others. Very dusty.

What are the people like? Have you visited any of the camps?
The Pakistani and Afghan people I've met are very kind and honest. I haven’t had much chance to venture out, but I did take a trip to the North West Frontier Province to a refugee camp by the Afghan boarder to observe the voter registration procedures. You can well imagine what the camp conditions were like. I went to the men’s camp first, but they didn’t take too kindly to my presence. I was first ignored, then was made a spectacle and sneered at. So I headed over to the women’s camp and was greeted formally and warily, but that’s also to be expected when a stranger descends upon you and is observing your every move. The kids were the saving grace, as they always are.

How is the voter registration process going?
The voter registration process is a difficult one when you’re working with a population that has uprooted from one place to the next. Most are illiterate and have no legal documents. Many did not know how old they were, or what year they left Afghanistan (to be eligible to vote, you must have left on or after the Soviet Occupation of 1979). We improvised by asking neutral questions to determine eligibility: “What kingdom was in power when you were born, or left
Afghanistan,” etc. Their answers told the history of the country these last thirty years -- the famines, the Soviet and American Occupations, the Taliban, the landmines, the lost children, the disappearances of loved-ones. Most wanted to return, while others were adamant they had no “home” to go back to. All hoped that Afghanistan would one day be a stronger and more peaceful nation than how they left it.

How are the Afghan people helping with registration?
The Afghan women who were registering voters were so proud to be given such an important task. However many feared for their safety should their elders believe they had something to do with the potential selection of the “wrong” candidate. Others were afraid to leave the registration cards and ballots at the poling facility and asked if they could take the boxes home to keep them safe.

What do people think about the election?
No one believes these elections are going to usher forth revolutionary change. But we all share the belief that it’s one crucial step along the way.