For Afghan Refugees, Polls Are Far and Near

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Afghan voters just went to national parliamentary elections, but refugees from that country here in neighboring Pakistan could only rue the fact that they have been left out of this vote.

Some 2 million Afghans living overseas in Pakistan and Iran took part in the 2004 presidential election and the first parliamentary poll in 2005. But since then, they have not had a chance to cast their ballots in the 2009 presidential vote as well as in this year’s poll for the lower house of parliament, or Olasi Jirga, on Sept. 18 – the second in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

The Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) said that about 40 percent of voters trooped to the poll, despite reports of militant attacks in some areas.

Counting is underway for the 249 parliamentary seats that were contested by some 2,500 candidates, but final results are expected at the end of October.

Many refugees here know full well that it is lack of funding that made overseas voting a problem this time around, but they nevertheless feel left out by their own government.

“An election in our country would make no difference for people there, and the Afghan would suffer as usual,” said Gul Daraz, an Afghan refugee who has been living in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar for 30 years.

“Elections are meaningless for the 1.7 million Afghans residing in Pakistan. The international community should have ensured the participation of overseas Afghans in the election,” Daraz, 30, a chemist by profession, said in an interview.

According to the United Nations, Pakistan still has about 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees who are allowed to stay until December 2012. Most of them live in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which Peshawar is the capital.

There were up to 5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan at one point, fleeing after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Since 2002, more than 3.5 million refugees have returned home under a United Nations repatriation program.

“We had taken active part in 2004 election but this time the Afghan government has totally ignored us. Actually, [President Hamid] Karzai’s government doesn’t own us,” remarked fruit seller Gul Nawab. Nawab, 47, says that his elder son had gone to the Afghan capital Kabul to campaign for a woman candidate. “We don’t have voting rights, which means it’s the end of our identity,” he lamented.

For some, it was difficult to go back to Afghanistan for the vote, which was marred by reports of fraud and questions about the election process.

“I am a political person and deeply perturbed over non-participation in the election, but it’s difficult to travel to Kabul just for casting one vote,” said a woman employee of the Afghan consulate in Peshawar.

But others like shopkeeper Maroof Hashmi did make the journey home. “There was extreme fear among the voters in Jalalabad because of rocket attacks by the Taliban on the polling stations,” recounted Hashmi.

Indeed, the Election Commission had to close 1,000 polling stations of the total 19,945 due to lack of security reasons. Three of the lower house candidates had already been killed by the Taliban. Media reports say at least 17 people were killed in more than 440 violent incidents reported on voting day.

Haji Dost Mohammad, an elder of Azakhel refugee camp near Nowshera, said they had wanted to bring up the matter of their voting with Karzai, who visited Islamabad on Sept. 15, but “he denied meeting us,” he added.

“I would have loved to campaign for one of the women candidates because women are the only ray of hope for female Afghan population,” Robina Anwar, an Afghan female teacher at a Peshawar-based school, told IPS. She said that the participation of 406 women in the election was extremely encouraging.

The IEC, which organized the Afghan election, has guaranteed that at least 68 seats of the lower parliament will be filled by women. “The blame [for our not being able to vote] lies at the door of the United States, which has ignored millions of the Afghans living outside Afghanistan to take part in the election,” Anwar pointed out.

Meantime, refugee communities in Pakistan closely follow the news about their homeland, although like many Afghans at home, they think the election would not drastically change things under the Karzai government.

“I don’t think the election would be of any help as far as establishment of peace in our country is concerned. All the Afghans living elsewhere should be included in the election process to make it a useful exercise,” mused Jamilur Rehman, an Afghan teacher here.

But for Hashmi, having been unable to exercise his right as citizens underlines the refugees’ uncertain existence. “It [not being to able to vote] means that we are neither citizens of Afghanistan nor Pakistan. Our own countrymen have let us down, for which we will never forgive them,” he said.

(Inter Press Service)