On Saturday, April 5th, 2014, the Afghan people delivered a resounding message to the Taliban and observers around the world. They voted not only for the presidential candidate and provincial council members of their choice but also for a democratic process in which citizens—both men and women—have a participatory role and can hold their leaders accountable. Afghan musicians and artists offer us a unique view of this historic moment from their perspectives.
In a series of pieces on the election, graphic artist Azim Fakhri used the image of a fingerprint to affirm his intention to vote. He specifically refrained from mentioning any candidate; the art was about the importance of the act itself.
The decision to vote in Afghanistan goes beyond civic duty. With extremist groups bent on thwarting elections and intimidating citizens, the act requires considerable courage. However, instead of its intended effect, a spate of pre-election violence—particularly the slaughter of children and families at a Kabul hotel on the eve of the Persian/Afghan New Year (Nawruz) triggered a sense of defiance that seemingly mobilizing millions to vote. After the assault on the Serena hotel, a moving musical tribute spoke what millions of Afghans sought to articulate through their vote:
“Enough killing children…enough suicide attacks…enough, Mr. President, of (your) silence.”
During the lead-up to the elections young Afghan musicians and rappers participated in a contest organized by Sound Central Festival for an “election anthem,” urging citizens to make their voices heard. Tolo TV, the same channel that airs the popular talent show, Afghan Star, broadcast the competition. “Everyone’s hope is related to your vote,” rapped Sonita, winner of the female category.
The message of Sami Enteqad and Shaheed Ghafar, winning Herati rappers in the male category, was similar: “your choice and my choice is a new future.” The contest sought to highlight the voices and ideas of youth, encouraging civic engagement among the younger generation. In a country where around 68% of the population is under the age of 25, the youth are a potent constituency.
Afghanistan New Generation Organization (ANGO) had a similar vision to engage the youth; they hosted a 60-second film festival featuring short films by Afghans representing their personal messages about the election. The first place entry by Said Maqsood Akbari depicted an impoverished nomad boy running after election papers in a windy, barren desert. His mother looks to see where he is going, and the scene is transformed into a lush playground where the boy is playing with other children, including a little girl. The scene fades out on the words “Election, the only hope.”
Ramin Noori’s 60-second film that won the “Audience Choice” award showed a map of Afghanistan dissolving into individual butterflies. The butterflies make their way to the ballot box, labeled “Entekhabat” (election). A single, green-colored butterfly emerges from the voting process, with a message: “Let us change our beloved country’s destiny with our votes…” and ending with the exhortation: “The new page is yours. Write it beautifully.”
Around 7 million Afghans of 12 million eligible voters (nearly 60%) decided to give this idea a shot and went to the polls despite punishing security threats, long lines, and nasty weather in many parts of the country. This was several million more than the number that turned out to vote in 2009.
In Kandahar, across the border from the Taliban’s center of operations in Quetta, Pakistan, the threat of violence is especially imminent. That did not stop the Kandahar Fine Arts Association from pioneering a graffiti art campaign in support of the elections. They focused on mosque parking lots and other high-traffic areas to spray-paint their messages: “Ballots not Bullets” and “Your Voice, Your Vote.”
“The people love color, they love art,” explained a Kandahari street artist. “They are happy to see messages that aren’t in favor of one candidate or another, but are in favor of the act of voting, of choosing our future.”
Although the extraordinary spirit and determination of the voters dominated the headlines, the human cost to make their votes possible was very high. Civilian casualties were low because the assault intended to disrupt the voting was absorbed largely by the Afghan National Security Forces, deployed en masse for election day. Seventeen members of the Afghan army and police were killed and 58 others were wounded on April 5th. Meanwhile, 141 Taliban fighters were killed and 33 were wounded.
The day before the election, on April 4th, an attack by a rogue policeman left Pulitzer Prize winning AP reporter Anja Niedringhaus dead and injured her companion, Kathy Gannon. They were traveling with election workers delivering ballots in Khost province. Her photographs of Afghanistan and the region, like the one below featuring Kandahar’s election street art, are a monument to her eye for beauty and humanity.
The physical security challenge in Afghanistan was exacerbated by the usual insurgent reinforcements sent from the Pakistani military intelligence apparatus, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Afghan cartoonist Atiq Shahid portrays the problem:
The cartoon reads: “The nation of Afghanistan does not fear the disruption of the election process. Men and women, old and young will place their votes in the ballot boxes.” In other words, go get ‘em.
The initial vote tally will probably not be complete until sometime in May, determining whether a presidential contender won greater than 50% of the vote, or whether (more likely) there will be a run-off between the top two candidates. The clear loser in this election, however, is the Taliban. Let us close with a cartoon depicting…well…just that: