The Last Journey
September 18, 2010 COP Turbett
Voting Day in Afghanistan

Today is election day in Helmund province. It is once again an opportunity for me to witness elections in another third world country. I believe this will be the last time I do such a thing. After a while, it all does seem to look alike from time to time. All kinds of preparations have gone into making sure this day goes off without a hitch, especially security wise. It was determined that Americans are not to be seen on the streets for the most part during the election process so the face of Afghanistan can be seen handling the elections. This also makes sure that no one gets the wrong impression that the Americans are trying to influence the outcome. The little town of Koru Charegh, just outside the COP, will be my backdrop for photographing how this election goes here in for what now is my back yard. It is very convenient for me this day and I don’t have to go far at all to take note of history being made by elections being held here.

The little town of Koru Charegh is where COP Turbett stands. The bazaar is right outside the post and the local mosque is the first thing that is present. Basically the center of activity is right here just outside the gate. It’s a small town, but seems quite crowded. I do not know how many people actually reside here but some estimates are between 30-thousand and 50-thousand in the surrounding areas. It is all a rural farming area where mostly opium is grown. This is exactly the place that the Taliban does not want any kind of election to take place. But there is going to be one here today, come hell or high water.

During the mooring briefing Captain Zepeda reminded the Marines that today no matter what anyone thinks of the mission back home, all of them here are part of history as this little community takes a step towards electing their own representatives and moving forward. The Captain’s words stuck solidly in my being as I had my doubts about the reasons for all of this. I must confess that if even only a few want to participate in moving forward, then there is some solace in realizing that all of this is for the better, at least that is the hope.

During the previous days preparations there had been lots of traffic in and out of the COP here from some higher ups in the battalion. All across the battalion’s area of operation, there are measures put in place to make sure that the enemy does not succeed in some brazen attack to disrupt the voting process. The battalion commander stopped by after dark with the same two NY Times media folks with him, checking on how things are going here at Turbett as well as other posts in this AO. Lt. Col. Ellison, the battalion commander saw me, greeted me with a good smile and asked me how things were going for me as he always does each time he sees me. He knows me on a first name basis now and I always tell him that his Marines have been taking excellent care of me. He constantly asks me if there is anything I need and I assure him I’m fine and no need to worry. I then let him be on his way for I know he’s a busy man and has two big time media folks in tow. I shake his hand and we part ways for now. He’s a good guy.

In the last 24-hours leading up to the preparations for the elections, I hear that a Marine from Hawaii, stationed with 3/3, lost his life after being shot in the neck while assisting setting up a polling location. It hits me hard and I am wondering exactly what his family will be told about how he gave his life so that these rural Afghans can participate in the voting process to move their country forward. The phones now will be shut down for three days and comms back home will be delayed. It’s just how things go out here. The loss of this Marine, from another AO, still haunts me throughout the day and it bothers me deeply. I have no idea who he is only that he is stationed in Hawaii. I don’t even know exactly where the event happened. I just know that a US Marine died helping set up a voting place for Afghans. That’s tough to swallow on this day.

Ten Afghan government officials had arrived the night before here at the COP and were bedded down with their materials in tow. The polls, right across the street, are to open up at 0700 hrs sharp in the morning. I had awakened early on this day and was already prepared by 0600 for the day. I wondered how things would be going and if being on time would be a priority today. Usually here in Afghanistan, nothing gets done on time. Today would be no exception. The polls did not really open until about 0740 hrs. It just takes time to get things going here. In the morning hours, there were Afghan police and security folks placed at key locations around the area to ward off potential problems. Early this day gunfire erupted for quite some time and Marines were not to be dispatched unless ok’d all the way up the chain. This day would be the Afghans taking care of the Afghans and the Americans would only and firmly be used in a support role and only if in dire need. Now, having said this, there was plenty of air cover overhead this day including F-18’s and Cobra helicopters. There were also some squads of Marines located at specific patrol bases under strict orders to stay inside but to be prepared to be dispatched if things got out of control. Again, the presence of Americans being seen during the elections was something that wanted to be downplayed and made sure that the wrong impression was not given. This was an Afghan event handled by Afghans. That is the goal.

In the first hours of the polls being opened, I hung out from the COP waiting for the line of people to show up for voting. After about three hours, there were only a total of less than 10-people that had voted. Some of their faces I had seen earlier and know of them from their dealings here at the COP. One of them was actually the person that owns the building where the COP is centered. There were several reports that the Taliban were staging impromptu road blocks in the form of stopping vehicles and brandishing a weapon threatening residents not to vote. There was also word out on the street that anyone caught with the ink shown on their hands having voted, would have that hand chopped off. Lots of intimidation was out there on this day. It was obvious, at least early in the day that voting was going to be rather slow, at first.

By the time early afternoon had rolled around there had been some more sounds of gunfire from the morning hours. There had also been some explosions and there was a report that 1st platoon operating out of patrol base Chosin, where I had just been the days before, came across an IED that exploded while a foot patrol was being conducted. Thankfully, no one was injured, the person triggering the device did not detonate it on time. Here in Koru Charegh, only 40 people had voted by 1:00 PM. I took a terp with me and I interviewed the Afghan official in charge of the polling station. He told me on audio that a person has to be registered at least one month before in order to vote. There is no same day voter registration. He also told me that about 1000 or more people were registered to vote but when I pressed him for an exact number he could not give me that number. He said it was at least 1000 and I got him to commit that it was definitely less than 2000 people that were registered. A person has to be 18-year old to vote and here, no females vote, according to him. I found that interesting because on the ballots there are female candidates. The ballots are composed of photos of people running. I am not sure how their respective messages get out. It all is a bit confusing to me.

The election official told me that the polls would close at 4:00 PM so I decided I would return about 10-15 minutes before the polls close and interview him again to see what the final count would be. By 3:45 PM, I returned and there was all of a sudden an influx of people wanting to cast their votes. Now, when I interviewed the official, he was in a bit of a hurry, but I held him back to pin him down on some information I was eager to find out. He told me that 87 people had voted but I made him show me a register with those numbers on it. The one he showed me had 65 on it, but he pointed to the other box that had 22 on it, so, that added up to 87, and I saw at least another 10 or so people wanting to vote as the polls were closing. The officials accommodated these voters and I made sure to snap those photos of them casting their votes. There are times that I think my camera being present insures that those wanting to vote are able to do so, but I cannot say for sure in this exact case. But it does make me think. I did notice that the officials wanted to close up shop as soon as possible.

I managed to take my terp with me and interview three voters that had cast their votes. The men were all in the mid to late 20’s and they told me they waited until this time of day for safety reasons to vote. They had come from the village that the gunfire had been erupting from in the morning hours. They took the long way around to get here by foot (all traffic was not allowed in the bazaar area this day coming in or going out during the voting) to cast their votes. I asked them about being intimidated and they were indeed concerned but were going to cast their votes anyway. Two of them had never voted before and one had voted once before in an earlier election. He had not voted in this location ever before. It is my understanding, but unsubstantiated, that this is the first time a polling location had been set up in the town of Koru Charegh.

After the final voters had cast their ballots, it was now a bit after 4:00 PM. They process of tallying the votes ensued and I was able to photograph that process. The final vote tally was somewhere around 97 votes, but I do not have a final count. The officials loaded up their gear, came into the COP and were driven back to Marjah via Mobile. The voting had taken place. It was over. Some of the squads that were out returned from the night before back to the COP. By late afternoon, and turning towards the dusk hour, things were getting back to normal.

Then, while I was typing on my computer in my tent, talking with Sgt. Mathers, gunfire erupted all over the place. I immediately looked at him and said, “that’s close”. I grabbed my camera and audio recorder and headed outside. Gunfire coming from the north was going on all over the place. ANCOP’s were running in the twilight through the dust and getting into positions. There was more and more gunfire. Now everyone on the cop was gearing up and getting their weapons and taking up positions. I went up to the post looking north and began taking photos as best I could even though the light was rapidly fading. This all lasted for quite some time and no return fire from the COP was ever fired. Apparently, the north ANCOP station was handling it but it all felt like the target was for sure the COP. I had not seen this before and the potential for good photos was there. But, the loss of light was rapidly diminishing my chances and all I had was the audio recorder to record it if things got worse. I would figure out how to take photos with the flash if it came to it.

Soon, the gunfire stopped and everyone remained in their positions until it was determined that all was safe. So, for all practical purposes as predicted, the enemy had tried unsuccessfully to disrupt the voting process here on September 18th. I had heard that on this same day, in Marjah, they too had a brazen attack but was more intense involving a RPG. Apparently all across the AO at polling sites, some form of attacks happened but the voting process was carried out. Out in the streets on voting day, the enemy, that being the Taliban, knew the Americans were not out and about. So, on one hand, the enemy had a little more freedom of movement temporarily. The next day, patrols would restart again and we will see what the enemy was busy doing while the Marines were staged inside during voting. The concern is that more IED’s were placed. I will accompany a squad in the morning to see what there is to see about contact in the area.

So another day ends in COP Turbett and this day happens to be an election day. I’ve pretty much had my fill of elections all across the world now and I don’t think I want to participate in documenting them anymore. I’ve taken photos again of a third world country voting with guns as the backdrop. Unfortunately it all looks the same after a while. I am glad I was here for this but at the end of it all I cannot stop thinking about the US Marine that was shot in the neck and killed while assisting to set up a polling location somewhere in this area here in Helmund province in the Marjah region. I do not know what I would tell his family about why he died. I did see some people and talked with some people that were thankful they had the chance to vote on September 18th. Whether that opportunity for those voters issues in this place changing or not at the expense of the loss of lives of US Marines has yet to be seen. I do not know exactly what to think about it all at this time. One thing I do know is this….here in the Marjah region of Helmund province, voting took place amid gunfire, bombs and attacks by the enemy. Some Afghan forces were successful with the Americans waiting in the wings to support, at repelling the enemy’s efforts to disrupt the voting process here. There were many unseen assets provided by the Americans that assisted in making sure this process took place. How and if that is to continue will be a question for politicians back home to answer as our own mid term elections take place in November a little over a month away from now. I do not think I will take the time to photograph that process. I think rather maybe I will track down the name of the Marine that was killed while setting up a polling place and send flowers to his family and extend my condolences concerning their loss. I will say nothing else about it.

This is how the day ended on September 18, 2010 at COP Turbett in Helmund province, Afghanistan.

Jim Spiri