Donkeys Enable Voting In Afghanistan's Remote Areas

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The Afghan Presidential Candidates

Donkeys are playing a key role in helping Afghanistan stage its presidential election. In rural areas — where roads are almost impassable — 800 of these sturdy creatures delivered polling booths and ballot boxes. The donkeys traveled rickety bridges and steep mountain trails; in some cases, helicopters dropped off the materials in the most remote regions.

NPR photographer David Gilkey has traveled with some of the donkeys and is observing the Afghan voting process in one of the most remote areas of the country in the north, high up in the Hindu Kush near the Anjuman Pass.

Renee Montagne: You're so far, people might not even know who the president is.

David Gilkey: That is exactly true. I was at a polling station this morning where that was certainly debatable with some of the older people coming to vote. They weren't sure what they should be doing. But they had their voter registration cards and they were going to cast their ballots.

Some of the photos you have already sent really show a people in the midst of a very wild part of the country. Describe a little of what you've been seeing.

From Fayzabad, the capital of Badakhshan province, the ballots are put on four-wheel-drive trucks and driven up into four-wheel-drive roads in every direction in the north. The donkeys are brought down from the villages — and these can be three, four days away — and the ballots and all the election materials are packed onto these donkeys and sent up into the mountains where they need them.

Locator Map of Kabul, Kandahar and Anjuman Pass
Alyson Hurt/NPR

Take us back on this trip and even where you're standing now and tell us exactly how remote and difficult the terrain is that these people are living and trying to vote in.

The biggest problem this year was they had an incredible amount of rain this winter — snow, followed by the melt-off — and in the spring they had an incredible amount of rain. It literally obliterated the roads up here. So, any progress that was made with being able to get to these remote regions over the last five years with road-building was erased. So there is a lot heavier use of the four-wheel-drive trucks, the donkeys, the helicopters, this year, due to the damage to the road system here.

In one photograph, it looks like three donkeys crossing, along with the people who are tending them, big boxes of ballots on their backs and ballot boxes, on a very rickety-looking wooden bridge across a raging river. Does this photograph show what they're up against, trying to get this material to would-be voters up there?

It gets worse than that. In a lot of places, they haven't rebuilt the bridges, and so they're having to go down into, essentially, the water, and go miles out of the way to get the donkeys across. It's not only that; it's [that] the trucks that are delivering the material are getting stuck, and it's an incredible effort, and it started about two weeks ago.

What is the mood among the voters where you are? It just seems like such an effort to make this happen. How are they feeling? And are they getting to the polls?

This is sort of the biggest event every five years here. This morning, I got up and walked down to an animal clinic — built a few years ago — turned into a polling place. People were queuing up at 6 a.m. They were thrilled. Everyone was sitting around the front of this polling place, talking and having tea, and waiting their turn get in to vote. It was really exciting.

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