Far from Taliban havens, other threats to vote

In northern Afghanistan, some wonder if election will break warlords' hold

October 08, 2004|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ESTALEF, Afghanistan - At a checkpoint on the road to Estalef yesterday, Afghanistan's troubled past butted heads with its future.

Afghan National Police officer Shahid Muhammed ordered five burly militia fighters out of a van so it could be searched for weapons and explosives. Similar checkpoints have been set up across Afghanistan to protect the polls in tomorrow's historic presidential election.

The driver sneered. "I am a member of Amanullah Gozar's militia," he said, refusing to budge.

"I don't know Amanullah Gozar, and I don't know you!" the small, wiry officer said. "You people are dreaming, still living in the past. You all say, `I am a fighter for so-and-so.' So what?"

Five men piled out of the van. For five minutes, Shahid Muhammed grappled with the fighters while another policeman stood by nervously holding his Kalashnikov rifle.

After a while the militiamen grew bored with bullying the policeman. They sullenly allowed their van to be searched. When Muhammed found no weapons, he let them go.

The militia fighters churned off, trailing a funnel of dust.

In southern and eastern Afghanistan, officials fear the Taliban or guerillas loyal to al-Qaida will try to disrupt tomorrow's vote by bombing polling places or assassinating election officials.

Here in Estalef, about 20 miles northwest of Kabul, and other parts of northern and central Afghanistan, the threat is more subtle. The question is whether the warlord militias that ruled here for so long will easily surrender power. Tomorrow, officials fear that militia fighters may try to intimidate voters into supporting a favored candidate.

The residents of Estalef are familiar with fear.

Once this village by the sparkling Malah River an hour north of Kabul was famous in Afghanistan for its lush orchards, its distinctive glazed pottery and for the summer residence of the former king, Muhammed Zahir Shah.

But when the Taliban swept through here five years ago, they chopped down all the fruit trees, knocked down the irrigation channels and left the king's pine-shaded villa a smoking shell.

They torched every building except the mosque. Whole families were executed in their fields. "I don't know how many died," said Muhammed Amin, a 35-year-old merchant.

For years, Estalef was a ghost town.

Today, thousands of former residents have moved back.

The air is filled with the sound of electric saws cutting wood for window frames and doors. The streets are filled with stacks of bricks, and donkeys hauling debris.

With financial help from France, Japan, Iran, the United Nations and the United States, Estalef's people have begun to rebuild and replant.

Artisans are even making their colorful pottery here again, available in a couple of new shops in town.

Six election workers, squatting in the shade on the steps of a shuttered shop, were waiting yesterday for the delivery of ballot boxes. They said they expected nearly everyone of voting age to show up at the village's five polls tomorrow.

Their chief, Abdul Bashir, said he was confident government-controlled Afghan National Police assigned to the polling places should prevent any violence or threats.

One of those in charge of security at Estalef's polls is Qandagah, a 30-year-old police major, who uses only one name.

A decade ago, Qandagah's family was relatively wealthy, with a herd of cows and orchards filled with 500 cherry and 100 apple trees. But after one of his cousins was killed in a Taliban airstrike the family sold its cows and fled for the Panjshir Valley, the stronghold of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

They lived there on what they could beg and scrounge. Fuel was particularly hard to acquire in the Panjshir, with its barren rocky slopes. During those terrible winters, one of Qandagah's sons and two of his daughters died of the bitter cold. "I didn't care for myself," he said. "But I felt sorry for my children."

Now 18 members of his extended family are crowded into a rebuilt home, while they try to find the money to rebuild and replant.

Qandagah said he is "proud once again to be living among my family, my village - my blood." And he's determined, he said, to protect his nation's first ever free elections from anyone who would interfere.

Estalef is mostly populated with ethnic Tajik families. And, not surprisingly, the dominant candidate here is Yunus Qanooni, the former education minister under the interim leader, Hamid Karzai, and one of a powerful triumvirate of Tajiks from the nearby Panjshir Valley.

The other Panjshiris include Defense Minister Muhammed Fahim and Foreign Minister Abdullah.

Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, is not popular in Estalef. But villagers criticize Karzai for his performance, not his background.

Partly, Karzai is seen as ineffective. "He has been in power for three years, and what has he done for us?" asked Sabahallah, a 25-year-old farmer.

Partly, Karzai is regarded as aloof. Because of security concerns, he seldom ventures from Kabul's heavily guarded presidential palace.

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