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Afghanistan: Special UN Envoy Sees Country In 'Delicate Moment'

One of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special messengers of peace, Anna Cataldi, says Afghanistan faces formidable difficulties as it tries to ensure a free and fair presidential election tomorrow. Cataldi, who just returned from a trip to the country, told RFE/RL that the vast majority of Afghans are unaccustomed to elections of any sort and barely know the candidates. Security is also a significant concern. Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai is the overwhelming favorite to win, and Cataldi says the other candidates bitterly complain about his special travel and security arrangements. [Click here --> /featuresarticle/2004/10/74d597ef-f5b0-44bd-94f0-9891f9e0c163.html to see a "Factbox" on the presidential election.]

United Nations, 8 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Anna Cataldi says the concept of democratic elections -- at least in the way they are perceived in Western societies -- is a mystery to most Afghans, who for the last 25 years have lived in an almost constant state of war and intimidation.

Cataldi, who is Italian, is one of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's nine "messengers of peace" and just returned from one of her numerous trips to Afghanistan. She is a human rights advocate and has traveled to a number of conflict zones, including the Balkans and Central Africa. She is also the author of "Letters from Sarajevo," which chronicled the impact of war on Bosnia's children.

Other UN messengers of peace include sports figure Muhammad Ali, opera singer Luciano Pavarotti, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

In an interview with RFE/RL in New York, Cataldi said a lack of security and the country's diverse geography have made it extremely difficult for Afghan presidential candidates to bring their messages to the masses. "The fact is that security in the country is so bad that, logistically, it is very normal, very difficult to have access to remote villages, remote areas," she said. "But also the other candidates, they have no possibility to campaign, because to campaign you have to reach the places, but how can you go there with such difficult access?"
Cataldi said it has proven difficult to explain the very concept of elections to the Afghan people. Illiteracy is widespread in Afghanistan, especially among women.

Cataldi said improvements in the quality of life in Afghanistan, especially in Kabul, are clearly visible since the Taliban was ousted in 2001, but she noted that traveling outside the capital is still considered risky. "One of the complaints of the other candidates is that Karzai was flown around by U.S. or coalition airplanes," she said. "The other candidates, they didn't have this possibility. Even so, Karzai has a lot of difficulty moving around, not only outside Kabul but even outside of his own compound in Kabul."

Cataldi said it has proven difficult to explain the very concept of elections to the Afghan people. Illiteracy is widespread in Afghanistan, especially among women.

Another obstacle to tomorrow's vote, Cataldi told RFE/RL, was the reluctance by voters to be photographed, especially women in rural areas. To successfully conduct elections, voters are usually required to present photo identification. But this proved a difficult task in a country where religious prejudice and hard-line beliefs have forbidden the taking of photographs.

"It was very difficult to reach the person to give [them] an ID certificate. To have an ID certificate means to have a photo in a country where especially the Pashtun ethnic group -- with a strict religious rule -- is forbidden to have a human image. But women, they are scared to be killed. They have been threatened not to have their photos taken," Cataldi said.

In the end, photographs were not compulsory for voter registration in Afghanistan.

Despite these obstacles, Cataldi says 10.6 million people have been registered to vote Tand that more than half of registered voters are women.

Cataldi said she has cautious expectations about the lasting significance of tomorrow's election. But she said there is definitely hope for the future, considering the rapidly improving conditions in post-Taliban Afghanistan, especially in the big cities.

She noted the waves of returning refugees and said many of them are coming back with money and starting businesses. She said there is a visible surge in small-business activity in Afghanistan. "You see a big palace building in the middle of shanty towns. You see shops flourishing. You see a country on the verge of something," she said. "[It is a] very delicate moment, a very delicate moment. It can lead to resettlement of the country, or not."

Cataldi said regional warlords and factional commanders still wield considerable influence in Afghanistan, and that the practical significance of their pledges to support -- or at least not to disrupt -- the vote is yet to be seen.

For more on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05" webpage.