A Forgotten Afghan Village Finds Its Voice

Times Staff Writer

High on a mountain, in a forgotten village that is losing a long fight against drought and disease, a simple man is putting his hope in democracy.

Omar Khan lost his 25-year-old son, Mohammed, last year to tuberculosis. Four of his other nine children suffer from the lung lesions that are slowly killing as much as three-quarters of the region’s people.

Through decades of war and chaos, no one helped. Even U.N. teams registering voters for Saturday’s presidential election -- the first in Afghanistan’s history -- missed Sang-e-Dawa when they passed through. So Khan embarked on a four-day, 275-mile trip by donkey and taxi to Kabul and persuaded officials there to register the villagers.


“For the last 23 years of war, we couldn’t find any chance to help our villagers,” Khan said. “Now that there is a little security -- and a little hope -- I went to Kabul to complain about the problems. We hope that anyone who is the next president will help us, will help all the poor people out here.”

Little more than 100 people live in Sang-e-Dawa, but many of the country’s problems -- and its dreams -- are evident here.

The hamlets in these canyons of northwest Badghis province, the mountains of Khowst in the southeast and the rest of Afghanistan are plagued by corrupt warlords, poverty, ethnic tensions and the drug trade. Three years after the war to oust the Taliban, its fighters still slip from the shadows to detonate bombs and assassinate enemies. Its leader, Mullah Omar, is on the loose, and Osama bin Laden is thought to be nearby along the country’s border with Pakistan.

The election itself, which is likely to be won by U.S.-backed interim President Hamid Karzai, promises to be marred by irregularities. Many villagers are waiting for their elders to instruct them on how to vote.

There are ample reasons for Afghans to be cynical. But across the country, there is hope that after decades of war, the worst is over and that, step by careful step, they are on the right path.

Khan, a former guerrilla fighter who was imprisoned by the Taliban, believes his voice, and those of his sick and dying neighbors, finally will be heard.


“In most of our villages, many people have died, but we couldn’t do anything,” said Khan, back home in his village, whose name bespeaks its isolation. It means “rock that everyone argued over.” “And we couldn’t go anyplace to complain about the problems of the people.”

Few people expect that these elections will be perfect, or that they will solve the country’s problems.

Until recently, Afghanistan had never had a voter list, or even a proper census. So as part of a massive reconstruction effort, foreign donors budgeted more than $98 million to fund voter registration, and more than 10 million Afghans have been registered.

Election organizers acknowledge problems, including the fact that some have registered more than once. But they say snags were inevitable given the monumental task of holding elections in a ruined country still at war with the Taliban and its allies.

In Khowst province, where U.S. forces are battling the insurgency, the campaign for the leading opposition candidate, Younis Qanooni, accuses Karzai of using state-owned radio and other government tools to win votes.

Qanooni’s campaign manager in Khowst is Qabool Khan, a guerrilla commander so well known as a local war hero that his picture is larger than Qanooni’s on campaign posters. He charges that key backers of Karzai in Khowst were officials of the Communist government installed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and that they denied Qanooni equal radio time.


Extremists in many parts of the country have tried to frighten voters by threatening to kill those with registration cards. But violence and voting are old companions in the region, and so far, Afghans have not been intimidated.

Simple things challenge Afghans to believe in the future: A campaign poster in a place as remote as Badghis province; the courage of a woman willing to run for president; the faithfulness of an election official facing down death threats from Islamic extremists.

Afghans will get better at democracy with experience, said the election official, Pir Sayed Shah Triziwal, who works in Khowst province. “The second elections will be better than the first, and the third ones will be the best,” he said. “That will be like a real election.”

Running what she calls a “zero-budget campaign” and battling centuries of discrimination, Massouda Jalal has little chance of becoming Afghanistan’s first female president. But just by being the first to run, she has scored a victory.

“Before there were only two honorable jobs for women -- teacher and medical doctor,” Jalal, 41, said in an interview. “Now there is a third -- president.” About 40% of the registered voters are women.

Karzai is expected to win either outright or in a runoff election. But no matter who comes out on top, the next president will have to prove that legitimate power comes from ballots rather than guns.


Many Afghans are angry over what they see as the slow pace of reconstruction and the benefits to the wealthy and powerful. They accuse local officials of siphoning off aid, leaving them without basic medicines.

They complain that warlords and government ministers are getting rich by buying houses that rent for $3,000 or more per month in Kabul while billions of dollars in foreign aid trickles down to the millions who need it most.

Instead of deploying troops to bring peace throughout the country, the U.S. and its Western allies went after the Taliban and its allies, Afghans say, leaving local security to warlords, who are free to intimidate people and smuggle drugs.

The people of Sang-e-Dawa learned long ago to live with neglect. The strongest among them walk five hours each day down the steep canyon walls to get water and haul it home. In the fourth year of a drought, they try to grow wheat in dry, dust-blown soil dotted with sharp rocks and thorny weeds. The closest road is a four-hour donkey ride away, on a dirt track snaking along the canyon walls.

Until Afghanistan began its difficult transition to democracy, Omar Khan’s only conversations with power were his prayers to God. Like most Afghans, he did what people with bigger guns told him to do.

The closest government authority is District Commissioner Haji Khan Mohammed, who lives in the roadside village of Jawand, about 20 miles to the north. He was appointed by the governor of Badghis province, who got his job from Karzai.


Violence and ethnic strife amplify the area’s troubles.

Most of the people in the area, like Khan, are Tajiks. They tend to support Qanooni, Karzai’s former education minister, who also is Tajik. Karzai is Pushtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, which dominates the south of the country.

On a recent day, while a village delegation was awaiting the commissioner’s ruling on a dispute over payment for a donkey, Pashto-speaking smugglers armed with assault rifles demanded that he reduce his tax on their illegal opium. He agreed to let the first 330 pounds pass tax free.

Mohammed said later that he hadn’t received his salary in years, and he borrowed a visiting reporter’s satellite phone to call the capital and ask when his money was coming. After the election, he was told.

For months, the people of the are have largely been on their own against the tuberculosis epidemic. Foreign aid workers stopped coming after gunmen killed five staff members of Doctors Without Borders in June about 30 miles up the road.

The killers have not been caught. In July, Doctors Without Borders cited the ambush and poor security throughout large parts of Afghanistan when it withdrew from the country after 24 years of dealing with emergencies here.

“We just have life in name,” Mohammed said, sounding defeated. “We are not really living.”

Khan’s village, about 40 houses constructed of rock and mud, is concealed in a gully more than 5,000 feet up a mountain. It was a good spot to hide from seemingly endless wars. But as Afghanistan began the transition to democracy, it was easily overlooked.


Teams of Afghans fanned out across the country, working in separate groups of men and women in deference to the society’s conservative values, and searched for eligible voters. But when registration teams rode the trails into the canyons of eastern Badghis province, they missed the villagers of Sang-e-Dawa and several thousand others, Khan and other villagers said.

Khan said he realized a month ago that his village had been missed. The district commissioner agreed to travel with Khan about 100 miles to call on the provincial governor in Qala-i-Naw.

“The governor had the [voter] cards, but he said that the registration period was already finished, that it’s too late now,” Khan said. “We couldn’t persuade him. Even now, many people have been left off the list.”

Khan had already gone further than many Afghans would have to assert his rights -- and he decided to keep going.

He had never been to Kabul, never seen so many cars, so much wealth in a city flush with foreign aid. New restaurants there sell tuna sandwiches for $8, and Deb’s Desert Oasis Salon offers manicures, pedicures, waxing and facial massage with this solemn promise: “Operating in accordance with Western hygiene standards.”

More than ever, Khan felt like an outsider in his own country.

“When we saw the way people in Kabul live, we really got sad,” he said. “I really felt sorry for us because our people are all dying from sickness and from hunger, they are all weak and sick and thin. But those people [in Kabul] are all fat and healthy, and they have really good vehicles.


“Most of our people have never seen a car,” Khan added. “They don’t even know what a car is.”

Khan knew only one person in Kabul, his childhood friend Mohammed Zarif Azhar. Azhar’s family left the mountains, and he became a law professor at Kabul University -- just the person to persuade bureaucrats that deadlines aren’t necessarily final.

The lawyer successfully argued that the lack of roads into Sang-e-Dawa was only an excuse for voter registration teams to bypass it -- to the benefit of Karzai and his backers.

“They don’t care about others. They don’t care about poor people,” Azhar said. “This election is very much fixed and limited, because the international community wants Karzai to win.”

But Azhar expects democracy to eventually prevail. “He might win this time,” Azhar said of Karzai, “but I am sure he won’t win it the second time.”

In Sang-e-Dawa, villagers aren’t as confident in democracy. They are waiting for a council of elders to tell them how to vote. And to several of them, Khan’s long journey seemed a wasted effort.


“We get hope from Allah, but not from politicians,” said Noor Ahmad, 45, one of those ill with tuberculosis. “Because if they were good people, they would have done something for us a long time ago.”