It is cloudy in Mazar-e-Sharif this morning. It feels like it could rain any minute. When I step out of my house, I see a huge crowd in the street. They are going to the closest polling station to cast their votes. There is excitement everywhere. I overhear two men talking with each other and one says: “Today feels like it is Eid.”
Bakhtar High School polling centre is also packed with people: Men and women of different ages are lining up to vote. They look determined and hopeful. It feels like it is Eid or some other national holiday. There is a strong morale among the people and everybody is eagerly waiting to cast their votes. Those who have cast their votes seem to be happy and come out and show their ink-wrapped and purple-stained fingers to their friends.
Long wait for freedom
Women wait to cast their vote at the Bakhtar High School poll centre in Mazar-e Sharif on April 5, 2014. (Photo: Sada Soltani. Main Photo: Waheed Orya)
Meanwhile, the queues grow longer. Those who are at the end of the line know that they will have to wait for several hours before they will be able to cast their votes, but they all seem to be determined to do it no matter how long it will take.
There is tight security. Police and army stand ready and on-call everywhere. A lot of efforts have been put in to ensure everything runs according to plan, but it looks like such a large turnout was unexpected. Voters, police, election monitors, candidate representatives and Independent Election Commission (IEC) staff as well as journalists are all part of the crowd.
Afghanistan encountered the term democracy 12 years ago and after three decades of war. People are now well aware that their vote is important. They believe that they can change their government based on their wishes - hope for a better tomorrow has galvanized millions to come out and cast their votes. People now see voting as a national duty in Afghanistan.
People see voting as a national duty now in Afghanistan.
There have been large and nationwide campaigns by the media, local leaders and government officials aiming to raise hope as far as the elections are concerned. It looks like their efforts have been fruitful. People strongly defied threats by anti-government armed forces who have vowed to do anything to disrupt the elections. Going to a polling station and voting under the current circumstances is a risk for any Afghan, but Afghans chose to take this risk to change their future for the better.
Grannies and granddaughters at polls
I am passing by a long line of female voters. I see a very elderly woman who seems to have come with her granddaughter to cast her vote. She is leaning on her crutch and looks like she cannot see well. I say hello to her and ask if she is exhausted by the long wait. She laughs and says that she is hopeful for the future.
A Mazar-resident casts her vote. (Photo: Sada Soltani)
In this country 12 years ago, women were banned from going to school. Now, women in general have a clear understanding of their rights and fight to uphold them.
Today, there is a female army officer right next to the gate of the polling station, searching women. I approach her and say hello to her. She politely asks me to open up my bag, proceeds to check it, body checks me and then waves me in.
A dip into the future
I showed my card once I got inside. A staff member of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) asked if I was a journalist and I replied that I was. I asked her about the elections. She said: “There is a very large number of voters and the number of polling stations is limited. This is somewhat problematic, but we are trying our best to keep the process as smooth as possible.” The situation seems to be good. Everything seems to be in order. There is a person who tells people how to vote. There is someone who is monitoring the situation to make sure the election is transparent. I feel safe.
While I'm lost in my thoughts, my turn comes. Someone puts my finger in a bottle of ink and I go to the ballot, behind a curtain. I checked the box for the candidate I planned to vote for and cast it in the box. Another vote for a better future! I feel good. So I too left the polling station and showed my ink-covered finger to others.