Afghans refugees see hope in their absentee ballots

About 740,000 Afghans who fled violence and repression at home are expected to vote in Saturday's election.

Rehman Gul cried the night before he went to register for the first presidential election in Afghanistan, his motherland. Decades of civil war there forced him to escape and live a life of a refugee in neighboring Pakistan.

His reddish eyes brimmed as he lined up, with his two young sons and other battered countrymen, to register for Saturday's vote at a makeshift office in this massive refugee camp on the outskirts of Peshawar.

"These tears are for my horrible memories. I had to flee the land where I grew up. My childhood, kite flying, wrestling, cycling, and my innocence - everything was snatched and looted," says the bearded Mr. Gul. "I was only 13 when I had to leave everything behind - my friends, playground, the house with apple trees, the bodies of my father and uncle. Since then I have been trying to survive, to rebuild my life with a wish that I should live to see my land liberated. So the tears are for happy moments, too."

Like Gul, thousands of families live in Jalozai Refugee Camp, a sea of mud houses where Afghans took shelter after fleeing from the death and destruction caused by years of fighting the Soviet occupation, subsequent years of violence between warring warlords, and then the strict rule of the Taliban.

To many, the vote offers hope. "It's like a rebirth or reincarnation," says Haji Rehman Khan. "Without having a motherland, life was barren. But now I can say with pride that democratic Afghanistan is mine."

Hopes of these Afghan refugees have risen after President Hamid Karzai decided to give them the right to vote in the presidential elections for which he is believed to have emerged as the most powerful candidate.

It is being described as the world's largest refugee voting program. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says that around 740,000 Afghans living in various parts of Pakistan registered and will cast their votes on Saturday in 12,000 polling stations in Pakistan and 6,000 in Iran. The refugee vote could be as significant as 10 percent of the total vote.

"We had expected between 600,000 to 800,000 votes, and the final figure is quite satisfactory considering that the war-ravaged country has no history of democracy and process of voting," says Greg Bearup, an official with the IOM, which is coordinating the refugee voting. "It means that Afghans happily want to vote for the future president of the new democratic and independent Afghanistan."

There was hustle and bustle in the refugee camps in and around Peshawar city in the final days before the vote, as presidential candidates launched campaigns and set up offices. Huge posters of President Karzai wearing a traditional turban welcome visitors to his local campaign headquarters here. Supporters are served sweets and traditional Afghan tea, known as qahaw, as activists and leaders are busy in holding meetings with refugee tribal elders.

"Hamid Karzai himself was a refugee. He knows your difficulties, the hardships of refugees. He was a mujahid and fought against Soviets, but his hands are not dirty with the blood of Afghans like other mujahids," Arsala Abdullah tells a delegation of Afghan refugees. "Aren't we tired and sick of blood games? The time has come for us to unite for the rebuilding of our country. Karzai is a symbol of unity among different ethnic groups."

Sympathizers of the other 17 candidates, including Karzai's chief rival, Yunis Qanooni, are also busy here trying to win over voters, particularly from ethnic minority groups.

Yet there are Afghan refugees who do not want to participate in the polls. Rebel groups like the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami have threatened to disrupt the polls. Their supporters in the refugee camps clandestinely distributed pamphlets warning Afghans not to vote.

"It is American-sponsored elections. It is un-Islamic to vote for America's puppets like Karzai," says one warning. "Let's wage jihad to liberate Afghanistan and reinstall Islamic government."

There were sporadic incidents where the supporters of Taliban and other militant groups tore the posters of Karzai and other candidates and issued threats to the workers by telephone.

"There are minor incidents, and there might be a few hiccups also, but Pakistan's law enforcement agencies have made satisfactory security arrangements. We expect that polls will be held peacefully," says Mr. Bearup. Thousands of armed police are set to be deployed in and around the refugee camps on polling day. Officials say strict security measures have been taken as extra military troops would be deployed along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Some refugees are afraid that they can be deported if they register.

"I want to vote, but if I register, I appear on records, then I can be forcibly sent to Afghanistan," says Fida Khan, a grocery shopkeeper in Peshawar.

Only 28 percent of the refugees registered are women, as compared to 41 percent within Afghanistan.

"We faced real difficulties to take women out of the houses," says Shakeela Mohyuddin, an educated Afghan woman who participated in the registration process as volunteer. "In Afghan culture, women's participation is unheard of so men were reluctant and we had little time to motivate the women here. But we told them that rights of men and women are now equal in Afghanistan."

Ms. Mohyuddin says that she has decided to vote for Karzai and is hoping he can bring a lasting peace so that she might return.

But Rehman Gul and his family, like many Afghans, will not make a decision until the tribal elders sit in a jirga and announce whom they will support.

While the process has brought many of these refugees new hope for peace in their homeland, not all are ready yet to return. Many refugees remain here to maintain a fallback home in case the rest of their family in Afghanistan needs to flee again.

Gul is among those waiting for more peaceful conditions before returning. But his young sons are already packing their bags.

"I want to see the complete end of warlord rule before I return, but my children would like to run toward our mountains, our land, even before the fall of the night," he says. "It has been like a long and unending night for us; we wish for a new day."

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