uploaded : Thursday 4th Nov 2004 at 14:08
by : Thomas Berner
This is an Awards for All essay.
Back in the 1970s, Union Square in New York City was a tract of land that no respectable person not courting suicide would ever visit.
Day and night, drug dealers would chant their strange mantra ("smokesmokesmokesmokesmoke") loud enough to be heard from 14th Street and even the police wouldn't go into the park to sniff around. Then Mayor Koch spent possibly the best million dollars of city revenue that he had ever spent. In a move that was a precursor to Mayor Giuliani's "broken windows" strategy of crime prevention, he cut back some of the underbrush and repaired a few park benches and had a beat cop occasionally stroll through
the park. Whatever it cost the city was soon paid back in license fees for the snack bar, farmer's market and used book stalls that the mayor enticed entrepreneurs into setting up. And then he just let the people take over. No big programs. No foofaraw. Nothing. "I fixed up the park," he in essence told the local residents, "now it's up to you to use it." And so they did.
Soon after the trimming crews moved through, I was walking from the Strand Bookstore at 12th and Broadway to the Barnes and Noble at
Fifth and 18th and on a whim passed through the Square. Smack dab in the center of the park were two women sharing a park bench, although they didn't know each other and there were plenty of empty benches around. One of the women was an elderly black lady with a round face and a firm jaw, one of those people who acheives strength of character from a lifetime of hardship,
heartaches and religious conviction. She was just sitting there, but you could see "Don't Tread on Me" written on her soul. She was agressively passive, if there is such a thing, minding her own business, but making sure
that no funny business was going on. The woman sitting next to her, was a young blond yuppie mother with her baby in a carriage. She wasn't afraid, exactly (you couldn't be within fifty yards of the old lady and be scared of ANYTHING less than the wrath of God) but alert and cautious. They were sending a message that civilization had taken back this park and, by gum, they were going to hang onto it. I don't think I've ever loved New York and New Yorkers more than I did on that day. I came to love walking through the park and as the months passed, more and more people came to claim their bit of sunlight. Old men and college students. Orthodox Jews and Puerto Rican housewives. Like all good reforms, it came from below, from the people, from the heart. It wasn't in the name of the people, which is what happens in the case of most tyranies, but by the people themselves, which is what democracy is all about.
Something quite similar happened here last Saturday in the first Presidential election in Afghanistan in its 5000 year history. I was
fortunate to be a witness to it.
I almost wasn't. I was one of the embassy observers, who were to spend half a day (or, in my case, all day) out on the streets cruising around from polling center to polling center to observe the voting. For the first time since I've been here, my alram clock didn't work. At
6:07AM, Deborah Alexander, ARG's Election Advisor called me, waking me out of a sound sleep. "Your team is leaving at 6:15, where are you?" Although the polls didn't open until 7:00, we had the farthest to go, so we had to leave first. Believe it or not, I was shaved and dressed and in the car at the appointed hour. We were the first out of the gate.
I felt like a turtle with the bulletproof vest we had to wear all day. Since men and women vote separately, we had male and female observation teams. In the morning I rode with Jayne Howell, our cultural attache and our interpreters, Khatera Arige and Sulieman Akhtary. We drove
around in a bullet proof car with two members shooters and were followed by the rest of the security team, weighed down by machine guns and grenades, headed by a good looking young man named Nate Lobas, whose radio name is "Crash." The day before we practiced escaping from the vehicle if it were disabled by a mine or a rocket. We went to the 5th District in the far West side of Kabul, farther West than I've ever been before, except for my trip to Kandahar, an area where the RSO won't normally let us visit after dark.
We drove through quiet streets, empty, save for the occasional group of rapid reaction soldiers and their vehicles, prepositioned to respond to any trouble. Election Day was declared a holiday, so businesses were closed and the only people on the streets were drudging to the nearest polling center.
You will have heard stories by now, from the members of the press who were sympathetic to what went on, about the group of women voters
up north who washed and dressed in their finest clothes before they went off to vote, because they fully expected to die and wanted to die well and about the crippled old man who walked all night to mark his ballot. (I saw something like this myself, where a little boy pushed a home made wheel chair carrying his dignified grandfather all done up in turban and robes;
then the little boy walked around and bent down in front of his grandfather, who grabbed him around the neck and clung to him while the little boy stood up and took him up a few steps and into the polling station.) But to my mind, what was far more inspiring to me was the very normalness of everything. The large crowds patiently waiting in line like a queue of Londoners waiting for the bus (more than one person told me that they had never seen an orderly line of Afghans in their entire life, yet no one was pushing or cutting in line). The professionalism of the voting staff, who behaved as if they had done this all of their lives (there were parliamentary elections back in the 60s once or twice, but nearly all of the
voting officials were far to young to remember that, let alone participate in it). The police who were outstanding in doing their duty (when I visited the Japanese High School polling center in the afternoon, the police were checking credentials and searching people by the street, one of the shooters, whose duty it was to follow us, was stopped by a policeman; the shooter showed him the special credential that allows diplomatic protective details to circumvent the "no weapons within 500 meters of a polling center" rule, but the policeman would have none of it until he got clearance from headquarters; although the shooter was a gringo and twice as high as the policeman was, the policeman never backed down, remaining polite but firm until he got the authorization to go ahead).
I am convinced that one of the reasons why the Taliban did not show up that day was because the average decent citizen showed the common courage to stand up and show where they stood. There was something of the movie "Witness" in all of this: remember where the Amish farmers prevent the crooked cops from murdering Harrison Ford by just walking up to the crooks and staring at them? The farmers were not aggressive, except perhaps, passively so. There were too many of them to kill, so they just backed down.
However moving that ending was, I always thought it was hokum. After all, the crooked cops could just reload when they ran out of bullets. After
Saturday, however, I don't think so any more.
The back of the Taliban has probably been broken now because of the election. And the victory belongs to the Afghan people, patiently waiting in line or running the polls or keeping order. The voice of the people has been heard and they have resouningly stood up for democracy.
The first place we visited was a woman's only voting booth in a mudbrick mosque. The Imam, a kindly young man who is also a university
student, invited us to tea, but we had to decline as we had a deadline (I saw the Imam later in the day as he was about to vote at one of the othercenters we visited). The woman in charge of searching women voters for weapons had not shown up, so we asked one of the policemen about it. He had already taken care of it, warning his men to keep a sharp eye out and
recruiting a substitute searcher from among the polling staff, who would drop her other duties and come out of the mosque to search anyone
In the morning, we visited two mosques and two schools. The carpets were removed from the mosque floors and the furniture was removed
from classrooms serving as polling stations. In the afternoon, this time with Inge Fryklund of USAID, we went to one mosque and three schools. In the morning, we worried about the few women we saw. Women at the places we visited were voting at a ratio of about one for every five men. We were told that women would come out later after they had completed their morning
baking and sure enough by midday the ratio was more in the order of one for two, about what the registration figures would lead us to expect (an Afghan also speculated to me that the men in the family would vote in the morning to make sure it was safe and only then let their wives vote).
There were irregularities, of course. There was a lot of evidence that many people had obtained more than one registration card. I doubt many people had multiple voting in mind. Thing is, the registration cards had the voter's photograph on them. If you never had had a camera, if you never had had anyone take a photo of you, wouldn't you want to have a picture of yourself for wife or husband? Darn right I would and I'll bet you dollars to donuts that in fifty years, thouse voter registration cards will
be hanging in frames on their grandchildren's wall.
It's ironic that the biggest problem had nothing whatsoever to do with a single Afghan. It is difficult to organize an election when something approaching 90% of the population is illiterate. The ballots were big colorful affairs with photographs of each of the candidates. In order to vote, you would have to get your registration card punched and then you would get your thumb marked with indelible ink from marking pens supplied by the United Nations. The ink would wear off eventually, but not for several
days. This would prevent duplicate voting. Unfortunately, a lot of the marking pens were dried up. The Afghan poll workers first tried to
compensate by replacing the markng pens with magic markers used to mark votes, but unfortunately, magic markers work well on paper but wash off human flesh. Well before 7:30, the polling stattions I was at went through a
second stage of improvisation: when voters complained at how easily the ink wore off, the staffers cames up with other alternatives. One place went to a local stationery store and purchased supplies. Others - and this became
common practice in the places I visites, as well as the saving grace - used the extra ink supply for the ink pads used to mark the ballots and dipped people's thumbs into it. It did the trick and the people continued to vote.
A few weeks back, I wrote about the D-Day stage of a war, but anyone who reads about the real D-Day finds that after months and months of planning, the plans fell apart before the first man hit the beach. It was an absolute mess. Machinery that didn't work, boats swamping in rough seas, people landing on the wrong beaches. What saved the day were thousands of people improvising and making do, acting individually and impromptu. Same with the voting centers.The decisions fell to the average polling official.
Late in the day, at a school, there were a long line of women waiting to vote at two polling stations while the four set aside for men were largely vacant, the result no doubt of the morning's phenomenon of more men than women voting. Having failed to get authorization from the UN to shift some of the voting stations from male stations to female stations, he made the
decision on his own initiative and the women got to vote without waiting for an hour. The first requirement of a democracy is for the average person to be able to make decisions on his own. On October 9, 2004, the Afghan people
passed that test.
At 4:00 PM, it was time to close up, but the decision was made in some districts, including District 5, to stay open later to make up
for the morning confusion. It was nearly 6:00 when Inge and I (we were the last ones home by a long time) witnessed the closing at our station. It was getting near dark and since the school didn't have electricity, they closed just in time before darkness fell. The supervisor, a red bearded man in young middle age with intelligent eyes, went through all the steps necessary
to verify the vote. There were six "stations" - voting rooms in the "center" - the building where all the stations were located. There must have been thirty people - staff, observors and just the curious - witnessing the close. After the first station's tally was verified, I shouted
"Congratulations!" and shook the hand of the supervisor. He was very pleased and when we got to the next station, it was he who shouted
"Congratulations!" Not to be outdone, I started clapping and soon everyone in the room was clapping.And so it went as we moved from room to romm, tallying, congratulating and applauding.
The Russian, Iranian and Chinese press have made some very sour remarks about the elections, for good reason, no doubt, since the triumph of democracy is a scary thing for people who sit atop not so democratic states. But some who should know better also began their reportage with snide remarks, although most of them have since backed away from their initial views, not soon enough to encourage some of the candidates less likely to win, who, like many losers find it easier to blame the process instead of their own shortcomings. So there will be investigations and panels and it will be awhile before it all settles down.
One of the most endearing things about the average Afghan is that when he mentions to you that someone is angry, he uses the word
"unhappy," so that if he refers to someone who is perpetually cranky, he will say "he (or she) is a very unhappy person." One of the drivers
explained to me the other day how someone kept him waiting for an hour, before he was ordered back to the embassy without his passenger for security reasons (our cars are obviously from the embassy and an idle embassy car on
the street is an invitation for a bomb). "When he came out, he did not see me, so he was sad and he called up the dispatcher and made him sad, so he called me and made me sad." How can you not fall in love with a nation whose
average citizen is so compassionate and so well attuned to psychology that underneath the demeanor of an angry nasty person, he will see the unhappy soul it hides. Seeing what some said about the great triumph of the Afghan people on Saturday makes me sad in both senses of the term.