Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part III)

Sunday, 7 December 2003

Bamyan, Afghanistan

Dear All,

The last few days have been great although exhausting. The women Constitutional Loya Jirga (CLJ) election in Bamyan was held from 4-6 December 2003. The loya jirga in Pashto means “Grand Assembly”. About 80 women delegates from all provinces in Bamyan arrived at the capital city to vote and elect 2 representatives who will sit on the CLJ in Kabul on 10 December. These representatives will be the ones adopting the final version of the new Afghan constitution.

Homa, my national counterpart, and I took the opportunity to nail these women down and provide them with civic education. These women are educated and influential in their respective villages, districts and provinces.

So far, my team has not ventured out of Bamyan province and there are about 4 other provinces in Central Highlands. The first phase of registration only covers the capital city and so, it was an excellent opportunity to have all these women from other provinces to take some time to sit with us and understand about the political exercise that is happening now in Afghanistan. We then hope that they will impart these messages to other women in their respective villages. It would make our work that much easier for the second and third phases when we move out of Bamyan.

Many of you might wonder what civic education actually entails. To cut a long story short, we try to educate them on their rights as citizens of Afghanistan to vote during the election. We also explain to them the concept of the constitution, democracy, governance and the separation of power; executive, legislative and the judiciary. In order to ensure that they understand what they are voting for, we explain to them the constitutional make up of their future government; i.e. the number of seats in the national and provincial assemblies, etc. Finally, we emphasise on the laws and regulations pertaining to the election as well as the confidentiality of their votes, so that they understand the importance of a free and fair election.

In effect, it is a pretty complicated concept to grasp, not because it is fairly a new thing for the Afghans but judging from the level of education, it becomes doubly challenging. Even I have difficulty trying to understand the whole constituency make up. In the end, the whole challenge really lies on how well our team is able to explain the whole process as effectively as possible and how much faith and determination the Afghans have in exercising this right without fear.

So for the last couple of days, we spent the whole day at the CLJ site waiting for these women to arrive and then pounced on them.

The temperature dropped in the evening and it became excruciatingly painful to wait in the cold. But we were well fed! During those 3 days, I ate proper meals. We were served breakfast which consisted of warm milk, naan served with thick cream and sugar, lunch which was usually rice, naan and kofta (meatballs) with tomato sauce and fruits, and dinner which was kabuli rice (rice with raisins and spices) and tender juicy pieces of spiced chicken.

Afghan food is generally greasy; a lot of the meat dishes are drowned in thick layer of oil but really tasty. Again, I have changed my eating habit here. I would not normally touch beef or mutton but I am beginning to eat them here. The meat keeps us warm and it’s impossible to live on vegetables alone due to the lack of vegetation in Central Highlands.

As you can read the reports from New York given below, Bamyan is moving ahead of other regions. This is mainly because we are in the safest region and also my team has been working doubly hard for this period of time. In the beginning, we were told that Bamyan will start off with a pilot project for the registration process; ideally in November which is a month ahead of schedule.

This is due to one reason; the weather. When the Electoral Component was first deployed here in Afghanistan about 6 months ago to assess the logistical needs for the registration process, they overlooked Bamyan’s winter condition. It took them months to realise that from January to April, it is impossible to register the people in Bamyan due to the harsh winter condition.

By then, the people on top decided to give us a one month head start (in a form of a pilot project) so that when winter comes, we stop our work while other region continues. But the pilot project did not fall through although our team went on with the assumption it would, thanks to Hari’s shrewdness.

In the first week when I arrived in Bamyan, our team worked like crazy; thinking that we would be starting the registration process in November instead of December. We went out to the field every day and visited at least 3 villages per day. That means at least 6 hours of face-to-face meetings. That was probably what nearly killed me.

But it seems that it all paid off now. The information given to us was that the estimated number of eligible voters for the first phase in Bamyan is about 6,000 people and we have now registered more than 5,000 people. We registered more than 3,000 people within the first four days.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have any problems at all. During the course of the registration process, tonnes of problems were brought forward by the registration team to us. A lot of people have come to register even when they are not eligible; i.e. they are not at least 18 years of age. It has been extremely difficult for the registration team to determine the age of the registrant because most of them do not have documentation to prove their age. Hence, the team leader has been given the discretion to determine their eligibility through observation and simple questions. (Each registration site is assigned with two teams; male and female. Each team consists of 3 members; team leader, registration officer and photographer.)

For example, we found out that in Afghanistan, the girls start praying when they are 9 years old and the boys 15. So, usually, the team leader will ask when they started to pray and then make the assessment. It is not a foolproof method but it works the best so far.

Anyway, most of the women would bring their daughters to the site and insist them to be registered although the team leader concluded that most of the girls are not 18 years old. Most of the women would get really aggressive and threaten the team that they will ask other women to boycott the process if they refuse to register their daughters.

When I first receive this report, I was shocked at the behaviour of these women. I could not comprehend how these women who are submissive, passive and non-responsive could be so aggressive at the same time. This is a huge problem for us because this shows that the women do not understand at all what we have been trying to educate them.

There is a procedure for the people to challenge the team leader’s decision. For instance, if they are really 18 and the team leader concludes otherwise, they will have to fill in a form and bring at least 2 credible witnesses (usually the village chief or mullah) to prove their age.

Wait, this gets better. I have also been receiving reports from the men registration sites that a lot of the men have been re-registering themselves over and over again. They will always give different names. A few of them got caught by the security guards.

Just yesterday, one of my colleagues lost her cool and took the matter into her own hands. Apparently, she became verbally abusive to the local staffs.

Sure, we are all liberated and educated individuals but still we have to watch our backs here and not to offend the Afghans unnecessarily. Perhaps, not just for the sake of the Afghans alone, but also for your own security.

Anyway, she caught this boy who has registered twice and in her moment of anger, she took hold of the boy by his arms and confiscated a cassette from the boy. Her motive was to embarrass and shame him in public and to take the tape away from him as punishment for his action, as a lesson to the others. The boy ended up crying.

When I first heard about this, I actually laughed in my heart. She must have been quite overpowering in order to make an Afghan boy cry! If you read Robert Kaplan’s book, “Soldier of God”, you’ll read what Afghan men are made of. They are tough, brave, strong and proud. Their mothers smile with pride if they are killed in a battle. They praise Allah if their limbs are blown up in the field.

There is a registration law in the country that if one is caught for lying about his/her age or registers more than once, there is a sanction for it. They can either get fined or jailed. Although it is difficult to implement this law but there are still provisions for it and the best thing to do was probably to warn the boy and then let the authorities handle it.

Well, after awhile, my main concern was for my colleague’s security. Being the foreign woman who intimidated an Afghan boy in public, she has better be watching her back. Needless to say, shortly after the incident, we received news that some of the villagers had staged a protest march and this was a huge cause for concern. In the end, my colleague was given two options, to be transferred to another region or leave the mission. She chose the latter.

It is never pleasant to have such a thing to happen in a team but unfortunately, as things become complicated, tough decisions have to be made. Nobody is to be blamed. My colleague, under tremendous pressure as well as having to deal with such a challenging environment, did what she felt right at that time. The boy did what he did for the same reason. He didn't know better. The UN's decision to provide her with those options was a necessity and most importantly, to protect her interest.

For some time, we have been trying to understand why these people are doing this. It is my responsibility to make sure that the people understand why they are registering and voting. If they can’t understand that, then I might as well pack my bags and go home. Or perhaps, it is giving us an indication or a signal that we are doing it wrongly? We certainly didn’t really have such problems in Timor Leste.

Well, something must be wrong but what was it?

Then, we received rumours that the village chiefs and mullahs are in fact the culprits behind all this. Remember when I said that the Hazaras have been persecuted for years? Well, apparently, the Hazaras have been told that if they register more than once or those under 18 register, they will be able to fool the government into thinking that there are more Hazaras than there really are. This means, more representation in the government, more aid and more benefits. This is actually a political tactic, nothing more.

Can you imagine the irony of it all? We need the village chiefs and mullahs as credible witnesses should a dispute arise and all this time, they were the ones who are willing to lie about it!

We don’t know what to do. I came up with the idea that we can ask suspicious registrant to swear on the Holy Qu’ran about their age but then it is not the best solution as I feel wrong to use their religion to manipulate the situation.

In the end, I rationalise that if these people don’t know what they want for their future, I can’t help them. None of us can. There is only so much we can do and the rest is up to them whether they want this to be a truly fair and democratic process or not.

I don’t know. I have lost some faith and hope for this process. There are just too much political obstacles.

If anyone of you has any comments or opinions, please share a light.

My regards,

Ka Ea

….to be continued in Part IV….

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