August 2009 – How good that there are nail polish removers One more day and a new president will be elected in Afghanistan. Roadblocks, no matter where we go. Police and military forces are everywhere in Kabul city. It has been announced that the state will demonstrate its power with the presence of security forces.

August 2009 – How good that there are nail polish removers

One more day and a new president will be elected in Afghanistan. Roadblocks, no matter where we go. Police and military forces are everywhere in Kabul city. It has been announced that the state will demonstrate its power with the presence of security forces. The traffic in the capital is chaotic anyway. On a road network from the twenties, expanded in the eighties, today there are an estimated twenty times more vehicles on the road than in 1990. Due to the countless checkpoints, long waiting times in traffic jams are a normal occurrence. In theory, we are allowed to drive past the queues with our press passes. However, “standing in line” seems strange to the motorists’ understanding. As many lanes are formed as the width of the road just allows. Only at the front, at the checkpoint, with the help of the horn, loud curses and rigorous jostling, everything is brought back together again in a single row. Driving past is just as impossible for us as it is for emergency vehicles of the fire brigade and for ambulances.

We are still trying to shoot the final preparations for the elections, the blocked roads make it almost impossible to get around. A few times I stand in front of the camera to describe my impressions to the viewers of Deutsche Welle. The donkey caravans with the ballot boxes that disappeared a few days ago in the north of the country remain untraceable. Nobody can tell us whether only a few dozen or even hundreds of villages are now left without ballot boxes and ballot papers.

The ultimate question in these elections is whether Hamid Karzai will be confirmed in his office as President of Afghanistan, or whether his eternal adversary, the ophthalmologist Abdullah Abdullah, will win this time. Foreign institutes have conducted surveys. According to them, it will probably be a neck-and-neck race. Karzai is seen by many voters here as the “puppet of the Americans” or “Mayor of Kabul”. He is a Pashtun, has lived abroad for a long time and the rumour is that he has “somehow” become a multiple millionaire in his first term as president, which is now coming to an end.

Today we will wear our protective vests. At the moment you never know who is shooting when, why and in which direction. Since even for very dangerous missions at the Deutsche Welle we had no “bulletproof” vests so far, and we had to use my own, rather outdated ones, we now have brand new “Flak Jackets” – as they are often called in English.

However, I’m afraid that the person responsible for procuring these protective clothing has never been in a region where you should wear the heavy things – or he or she simply has no idea about press work in hostile areas.

Technically, the vests are flawless. They are dark blue (green looks too military – light beige would have been even better), and have high-quality Kevlar inserts. With these, they reliably stop projectiles from smaller handguns and from not too short a distance. In addition, the new vests have solid ceramic inlays, which should also resist bullets from weapons such as the Kalashnikov AK-47, the US M16 or the G36 from Heckler & Koch. With the protective plates, each of these vests weighs around 15 kilograms. The “Flak Jackets” do not have any stab protection.

Flak Jackets come in different shapes and colours. Reflecting elements should never be applied.

However, it is completely naive that large signs are attached to the chest and back, on which the word “PRESSE” is written. Yes, the German word. But also the inscription with “PRESS” or “MEDIA” would not have been much better. Because where these vests are mainly used, hardly anyone would be able to read Latin letters. I suppose that for many Taliban, hardly anybody has ever come across such letters (let alone the word “presse”).

But what puts the crown on the whole thing: The word “PRESSE” is printed in highly reflective material. It also glows in the dark. This is of course very practical for the sniper. He can’t read what it says – but he knows exactly that he only has to aim 20 to 30 centimetres higher to achieve a “hit”.

Should such a protective vest be labelled at all? Yes! With the two letters “TV”. The abbreviation is internationally known and understood (almost) everywhere. And yes: of course it should also be exactly this inscription for the colleagues of the print and radio media.

Yes, and then Deutsche Welle has also procured large, shiny, black safety helmets. More than with these things on your head you can hardly be noticed as a journalist… Colleagues who have experience in war and crisis zones know: They carry such a helmet in front of the camera to show the viewers how dangerous the job is (or was for kind of hero they are). Or you wear it because you’re fed up with your life. The sniper knows exactly: a few centimetres below the edge of the helmet the shot is usually deadly…

[/trx_block]Abdullah Abdullah was a confidant of Ahmed Shah Masoud and fought with him against the Taliban. His father was Pashtun, his mother came from the north of the country and spoke Persian. He likes to see himself as a mediator between the Pashtuns and the other peoples of Afghanistan.

The people of Abdullah have been telling for days that they have uncovered irregularities in the election preparations. There would be pre-filled ballot papers and regional “princes” would have promised the incumbent president that they would make sure that all their “subjects” would vote correctly, namely for Karzai. Moreover, according to Abdullah’s side, some polling stations should deliberately not be opened on election day. Votes in regions where Abdullah has strong support would be prevented by the other side.

Ballot boxes for rural areas.

The next morning the alarm clock rings at six o’clock. One hour later the polling stations open. Here in Kabul these are mostly classrooms in state schools. Wahab, our driver will pick us up at 7:30 and he’s on time, as usual. His index finger is already marked with a smudge of the butcher’s paint. So he has already cast his vote. “So, Wahab, who did you vote for?” I ask him. He doesn’t have to think long about the impertinent question. “Obviously, as a Pashtun, I can never vote for this Abdullah Abdullah. Of course I made my cross at Karzai.” Even in the last few days he had repeatedly scolded Karzai’s politics, blamed him for the corruption that had become commonplace and was always upset that “this Karzai is stuffing his pockets with international aid money”. “But then why Karzai? Don’t you totally disagree with his politics?” Wahab is hesitant to say, “You must understand, Dieter. I’m Pashtun, he’s Pashtun. There’s no other way.” In my experience over the past 35 years, the things Wahab has described should be on the mind of almost every Afghan. Many don’t vote for the best candidate, but for the one with the “right” ethnicity.

In the morning we shoot in two polling stations in the city centre. It looks like everything is running perfectly normal. At one of the two schools there are certainly 200 people queuing up and waiting patiently for their turn. Flying vendors are walking up and down the waiting lines, offering their goods. Even in the classrooms where the ballot boxes are placed, things seem to be completely relaxed. The election workers explain patiently whenever necessary. Uniforms can still be seen on every corner and in every important building. Some of them with heavy weapons, helmets and body protection. The Afghan news channels do not report anything at all about the conduct of the elections in the provinces. Neither positive nor negative. I find this very suspicious, because otherwise the television stations like Ariana-TV, Tolo-TV, atv and the many others that have been created since 2002, will bring everything that could be interesting in their news.

A cameraman from Tolo is standing right next to Kay at one of the ballot boxes. Wahab has gone home for a short time, so I have to try to ask him without a translator. That’s no problem at all, he speaks English with a broad American accent. I want to know from him when what he’s filming here is going to be broadcast. At the latest on the midday news. Then I explain to him my astonishment that there is almost no information about the elections on the various television channels. Above all, absolutely nothing from the rural regions of Afghanistan. He seems a little surprised: “Didn’t they from the Ministry of Information talk to you at all? They have kindly asked us to hold off on any negative news until after the polls close.” News of incidents, it was said, could contribute to the voter turnout “going down”, because then people could stay at home for fear. So it’s like an unofficial gag order…

Wahab will be back to pick us up around noon. He proudly raises his index finger. No more blue paint! “If I have time,” he says, “I will vote again this afternoon.” And how did he get the supposedly non-washable paint off? “Quite simply, with my sister’s nail polish remover.”

I’d like to go to Dehkhaduda Dad. That’s the village where we looked in vain for the Mercedes dealership a few days ago. Here in Kabul, everything we see is so completely normal. I think it’s just too normal, something can’t be right. It’s not far, but the many checkpoints, especially on the big arterial road towards Jalalabad take time. So it’s afternoon until we get to Dehkhaduda Dad. We have to hurry a bit, at 19:30 Afghan time I have to stand in front of the live camera and make my first report on election day. The village square is deserted. In front of the school building the Afghan national flag is flying – just like it did a few days ago. The house is signposted as a polling station. Inside, behind provisionally set up desks, three men are sitting. One of them recognises us immediately. The ballot boxes seem to be well filled. With the help of Wahab, I ask whether there would be no voters here now. “No, no, not anymore. They were all here in the morning.” He points to the half-transparent plastic boxes that serve as ballot boxes. They are really well filled. There must be hundreds of ballots here.

I don’t think there’s anything for us to see or shoot. So back to Kabul. No sooner does Wahab ask in the car, “Did you see the full ballot boxes?” Sure, I have. “But the village has less than 100 inhabitants and probably more than half of them are too young to vote.”

*** Translated with the help of (free version) ***

So this is Chapter 59 of my Afghanistan diary. The next chapter will be published on 18 August 2020. It will be named “August 2009 – Vote Rigging? Well, things happen…“. New chapters will follow fortnightly – more than 60 will be published in total. Please scroll further down for subscription.

Dieter Herrmann, the author of this Afghanistan diary, lives in Australia, reports from there for German television stations and is editor-in-chief of the only German-language newspaper in Australia. He is known as a media trainer for radio and television stations all over the world as well as media trainer for senior managers, officers and pilots. To get in touch with the author and for further information on media training by Dieter and his crew please use the “contact”-button or send an email to dieter(at) (please replace the (at) with the @-sign!)

My first trip to Afghanistan started in the early summer of 1973. Since then I have been to the country at the Hindu Kush more than 100 times and in total have spent several years in Afghanistan. I got to know all political systems from the kingdom up to the today’s Islamic Republic. In about 60 chapters, based on diaries and memories, I describe my experiences in the country, which has not come to a rest since 1973. Among many other experiences, I was arrested and imprisoned twice during this time, had to live temporarily in the bunker of the Turkish embassy and had an amazing interview with Mullah Muttawakil, the personal spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Omar and later Taliban Foreign Minister. I describe my personal feelings and doubts as well as political and human events, movements in the population and developments in the country. Nothing about this manuscript has been invented or added – however, to avoid endangering anyone, I left out some of my experiences. I changed some names to protect friends and informants. Whether the last chapter will ever be finished is questionable. I was supposed to be back in Kabul in 2018, but the security situation is so bad that my clients are unlikely to get me into the country. “German media trainer murdered by Taliban” would be a catastrophic headline for everyone involved.

Leave a Reply