On the Afghan election trail

August 18, 2009

Soviet helicopters, pick-up truck racing, Kalashnikov-carrying security guards, banquet lunches.  Photographing Afghan presidential candidates as they traverse the country before the election on August 20, is campaign travel at its quirkiest.

Flying with Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah to a campaign rally in Samangan province.  Photo: Tyler Hicks

In Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan one week before the vote, the traveling press piled into the back of pick-up trucks following Abdullah Abdullah, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s main rival, from the airport to the Shrine of Hazrat Ali.

Supporters race to keep up with Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah’s convoy as he arrives to give a campaign speech at the Shrine of Hazrat Ali in Mazar-i-Sharif.  REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Around 50,000 supporters jostled between the cars in the convoy, so each truck would accelerate, then slam on the brakes.  Abdullah supporters were grasping the back of the truck and trying to climb up.  It was challenging to stay standing to take photos without being launched into the crowd every time we went from 30-0mph in 3 seconds.

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah is mobbed by supporters as he arrives to give a campaign speech at the Shrine of Hazrat Ali in Mazar-i-Sharif.  REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

It was 104 degrees Fahrenheit at the shrine. Members of the media, soaked with sweat, got separated as we fought our way through the throng.  People were horribly packed and a few ended up in hospital with injuries and heatstroke.  It was brutal fighting my way through the crowd.  Even hard to breathe at one point. The crowd was all men so I was fighting off wayward hands.  The lens hood broke off one of my lenses and the filter on the front of the lens smashed.

Campaign workers attempt to cool off Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah with water before he gives his campaign speech at the Shrine of Hazrat Ali in Mazar-i-Sharif in Balkh province.  REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

After Abdullah’s speech, the whole crowd was trying to fight its way back into the mosque. The security guards forced the door shut against the crush. I kept knocking to be let in and they eventually opened the door, but the force of the crowd propelled me backwards onto the floor of the mosque.  I was sweating profusely and breathing fast, so a man poured water on my head, soaking all my camera equipment.

Lunch, as always in hospitable Afghanistan, was a beautiful contrast.  Time slowed down as we drank tea from delicate china cups in an anteroom at the governor’s mansion with spinning chandeliers.  Upstairs we entered a banquet hall and were served at least six different meat dishes, rice, naan, okra, soup and watermelon.  Bollywood music videos, and later Abdullah’s speech, played on the flat screen television next to Karzai’s portrait.

Then came the rally car drive back to the airport with all the young drivers in the convoy racing each other.  Guys with Kalashnikovs hung out of the back of many of the pick-up trucks and the whole convoy drove at high speed.  They overtook on roundabouts, sounded police sirens, shouted at each other, and screeched tires on every turn, slamming on the brakes for cyclists and donkeys.

Cars tend to barrel towards you on both sides of the road in Afghanistan.  Drivers in both directions abuse their horns until one driver loses his nerve and swerves away from the impact.  We joked about dying, but laughed most of the way because it was just such a relief to not be at the mosque.

The view home flying over the Hindu Kush is a beautiful distraction from the noise, fumes, and claustrophobic heat of the Soviet-era MI-17 “flying truck” helicopters and troop planes the candidates use on the campaign trail.

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