Accessibility links

Breaking News

Afghanistan: Among Nomads, Voter Education Is A Difficult And Dangerous Task

By Laura Winter Afghanistan's elections for president and the lower house of parliament are slated for sometime this fall. But when it comes to Afghanistan's sizable population of nomads, known as Kuchis, voter education is a difficult and a perilous task for all.

Kabul, 25 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The three officials from the Joint Electoral Management Body overseeing the country's elections have no idea that the Kuchis will not quietly fall in line with their plans to educate them about democracy and the upcoming elections.

The officials have just told the 15 Kuchi leaders seated inside a United Nations office in Kabul that just one Kuchi election representative will work in each of the 28 provinces in which they live.

The lids of Wakil Ashraf Ahmadzai's eyes narrow with tension and his brow furrows below his bronze-colored turban. It's too much for the 50-year-old nomad leader to take.

"If you choose 28 [non-Kuchi] representatives for all the provinces, it is your responsibility if this fails," Ahmadzai says. "This plan for one person for each province is not enough. For example, there are many Kuchi tribes. If someone from an outside tribe tries to comes to speak [to a different tribe] about the election, they will not accept it."

The Kuchis are a tightly knit nomadic tribe -- a minority with an estimated population of 3 million in Afghanistan. What Ahmadzai and the Kuchi leaders are demanding is all 45 of the members of their tribal council be employed as election educators. He fears if outsiders come to their camps, their tribesmen and women may chose not to vote.

The elections for president and the lower house of the parliament are scheduled for sometime this fall. Registration for the polls is due to close by the end of July. Many election officials worry the voter registration effort will fall short of signing up 10.5 million people. Less than half that number have registered in eight months.

Election officials say faltering security and the lack of voter education are preventing people from registering. Ahmadzai says these 45 men, also called maleks, are recognized and respected throughout the tribe, and will be trusted when they speak about democracy and elections.

"There are some Kuchis who are living in such far-off places that they don't even know who the president of Afghanistan is. We are here because we have to find out about the election, and then we are going to go to our tribes and to the maleks and explain to them what the election is, whey they need to register, what the rules are and how to make a choice," Ahmadzai says.

Finding the Kuchis is difficult because they are constantly on the move along the many nomadic trails that crisscross Afghanistan. The Kuchis argue their leaders not only know how to find their wandering people, but they are the only ones who will be welcome when they do.

These men are fiercely protective of what they see as their women's honor. They will not allow an outsider to see one of their women, let alone talk to her about democracy and elections.

Moreover, participating in the vote has become an issue of security.

Amandine Roche, the United Nations' election civic-education supervisor for the five provinces surrounding the capital Kabul, takes the Kuchis' security concerns seriously. She says earlier this month a group of 70 armed men entered a Kuchi camp in southern Afghanistan, warning the nomads not to register to vote.

She says when Kuchi leaders came for election education training, one of them handed her a letter.

"He gave me this letter because when he went in Logar in the camp the Kuchi gave him this letter," Roche says. "They [told him] Al-Qaeda came during the night and they give this [letter], but they [couldn't] read it, so they even didn't know what it was talking about. But [Al-Qaeda] just threatened them and said 'If you collaborate with this foreign invader we will kill you.' It's like propaganda and intimidation."

Roche says another threatening letter was posted on the door of the election education office in Logar Province, just south of Kabul. Earlier this week that office came under rocket attack. No one was hurt -- this time.

Roche says warlords are a problem too: "How can you bring democracy [to] a country where all the warlords have weapons? I mean, people are very scared and all of them say 'I will take my [election] registration card once the warlords do not have weapons.'"

It took two days of negotiating, but the Kuchi are successful. All 45 council members are hired to educate their tribe about democracy and register them for the elections. They are taking to the trails on camel and donkey. They are armed with election posters, stickers and large charts with pictures that help explain the voting process to their mostly illiterate tribe. And they have just over a month to get the job done.