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At a schoolhouse, Afghans vote for change

By Anna Coren, CNN
updated 10:48 PM EDT, Sun April 6, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Afghans queue patiently to cast ballots in historic election
  • Despite threats of Taliban violence, voters are defiant
  • Queuing at a girl's school, Afghans say they are voting for change
  • 300,000 observers deployed to ensure vote is fair and free

(CNN) -- In the cold rain outside a girl's school in Kabul, a queue stretches several hundred meters down the road. Some are dressed in western clothes, others in traditional shalwar kameez. One man is wearing overalls covered in paint from the work site he's just come from.

They've been waiting for over an hour but they don't mind -- they're here to make history and change the course of their country. A 5-year-old boy stands next to his father, holding his hand, unaware of what all the fuss is about. In his other hand he holds his father's voting card -- an Afghan's ticket to democracy.

"We work for him," says an old man pointing at the child. "This is why we're all here to vote -- to build a better future for all our children."

Arriving at the gates of the school, smiling from ear to ear, MP Shukria Barakzai goes through the women's entrance. "I feel fantastic, proud happy, successful," she says. "I feel really good because I believe today is my day because the people of Afghanistan can go and vote freely.

An Afghan poll worker notes the serial numbers of sealed ballot boxes in Kabul. An Afghan poll worker notes the serial numbers of sealed ballot boxes in Kabul.
Photos: Afghanistan election
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"The crowds are fantastic and that's a big slap in the face for the Taliban and terrorists who kill our children. They stop people coming from election and they don't believe in democracy. See? All (these) wonderful people are coming to practice democracy."

The citizens of Afghanistan would be forgiven for not wanting to come and stand in these long lines outside almost 6,500 polling stations around the country. The Taliban launched a series of high-profile attacks in the lead up to the historic elections, warning that anyone who participated in the vote would be punished. But despite the threats and the violence the voters are defying the insurgents, rejecting their message of fear.

"We are not afraid of the threats," explains Barakzai. "As much as they kill us, we get ... stronger, as much as they killed our children, our journalists, innocent women, we say 'no.' We will go and vote because we are fed up. We want to see real change, we want to enjoy our democracy."

Her 17-year-old daughter Fatmia, proudly listens to her mother. She's heard these words before but today is different -- today change is really happening. "I hope Ashraf Ghani wins," she tells me with excitement even though she can't vote for another year. "I hope he wins because I think he's the best of the candidates and he's got ideas, bright ideas that will help our country."

When I ask Fatmia what sort of future she would like to see for Afghanistan, she tells me, "Honestly a bright future, a future that is good for us, good for all the people, for girls, good for women -- you know, a bright future!"

Inside the school, past the layers of security, men and women troop off into different buildings where they line up again, this time in classrooms that have been transformed into polling booths. Each one shows their voter card to the Independent Election Commission official and has their name marked off the list. Their forefinger is then dipped into indelible ink -- proof that they've voted -- and they pick up their ballot papers.

This is why we're all here to vote -- to build a better future for all our children.

"It is very important for the future of Afghanistan," says a father of three, after placing his papers into clear, locked plastic containers. "I'm very happy everyone is participating in the election. We are deciding the future and we want someone to protect our people and stop the war."

It was hoped President Karzai would achieve peace during his 12 years in office but as he departs after a constitutionally-restricted two terms at the helm, he leaves behind a war-torn country, mired by corruption and whose relationship with the United States is at an all-time low.

Karzai has refused to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would ensure an enduring presence of U.S. troops post 2014, creating a schism with the U.S. government.

The three top candidates -- Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul -- have all said they would sign the BSA.

While voter fraud was a big problem back in 2009, when Karzai was accused of stealing the election, this year 300,000 observers are taking part to ensure the vote is free and fair. "So far it's really good, we haven't noticed any voter fraud," says Mohammad Hanif of the Free and fair Election Forum of Afghanistan.

"It is very important to observe," he says. "It's my duty for my country and as an Afghan citizen I want these elections to be a success."

So does 24-year-old Trina Haidarzada, a mother of two, who has only known a life of war. "I'm here to elect a good president so the bombings and (the) war ends. I want a bright future and I want my kids to go to school without fear -- that's what I hope for."

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