At first glance, there's something comical about a man chasing a runaway donkey with a country's presidential ballots on its back. But actually, that man and donkey are responsible for delivering the vote to some of the most remote regions of Afghanistan for this Thursday's election — regions only accessible by donkey that could very easily be neglected and, until now, pretty much have been.
The second democratic presidential election in Afghanistan will take place Thursday. An election official chases a runaway donkey carrying cardboard polling booths, which will be delivered to remote areas of Afghanistan for voting.
The challenge is getting to these remote regions, as roads are nearly impassable. Trucks meet up with donkey teams at selected locations along the road. The donkeys then travel to remote villages where the polling places will be set up. A sheep herder tries to protect his flock from huge Russian-made trucks.
A truck driver wipes his eyes after driving all night to deliver voting materials in the Yangam district of Badakhshan province. The terrain is so treacherous and roads are so poor that it can take up to 24 hours to travel 30 miles. Yangam has become especially difficult to reach this year after winter floods.
Posters of Afghan President Hamid Karzai are taped to the side of the only restaurant in Yangam district. In this Tajik-dominated ethnic region of Afghanistan, politics take center stage as the presidential election draws near.
Election officials and local police load a donkey with boxes for ballot collection. On a recent day, four donkeys were loaded with tables, chairs, polling booths, ballots and the collection boxes to make the all-day journey to the village of Quali Kuana in the nearby mountains.
Delivery donkeys nuzzle before heading out on the trail.
More than 800 donkeys will be used by the United Nations and the election commission to deliver voting materials to remote villages.
Donkeys, their handlers and the Afghan National Police escort a load of voting materials over a handmade bridge en route to the village of Quali Kuana.
Voters will travel miles, all day in some cases, to exercise the right to vote for the next president.
Boys from Quali Kuana helped carry the election materials with their donkeys. They roll up free posters from the U.N. — cartoons showing people how to vote.
Election materials are unloaded at a private home of a local elder in the village of Quali Kuana, where the ballots will be guarded by the Afghan National Police. Security accompanies all of the voting materials no matter how remote the village. The ballots will be escorted back to Kabul via donkey and truck.
A boy and his donkey carry unused ballots across a stream while on their way to the village of Quali Kuana in the Yangam district.
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For this year's election, Afghanistan's second democratic election, the United Nations and the Afghan Independent Election Commission have mapped out ballot deliveries by helicopter, truck and donkey to ensure rural citizens the right to vote. NPR staff photographer David Gilkey joined election officials in the trek to deliver voting materials in the Badakhshan province in northern Afghanistan.
Despite his remote location and patchy reception, we were able to get Gilkey on the phone for a few minutes to ask him about this experience. After embedding with Marines and dodging constant fire in southern Afghanistan, and after covering the presidential campaign, Gilkey seemed grateful to see this side of the election — a more positive side. "It gives you a whole new appreciation for our right to vote," says Gilkey. "We can't even get in the car and drive a half a mile to the elementary school to vote. But these people, don't ask me how — they don't have phones, power or water — will walk for two days to vote."
To learn more about the Afghanistan election, and to view more of Gilkey's photographs, check out our Afghanistan hub page.