In March 2004, visiting a village in Helmand, I stopped to photograph a poppy field in scarlet blossom. Asmall girl in a bright blue dress ran up to my driver, beseeching him to appeal to me: “Please don’t destroy our poppies,” she said to him. “My uncle is getting married next month.” She could not have been older than 8, but she already knew that her family’s economic future—even its ability to pay for a wedding—depended on a crop that foreigners like me wanted to take away.
It was in Helmand also that I met Khair Mahmad, a toothless and partly deaf old man who had turned a corner of his simple stone house into a sanctuary of knowledge. The high school where he taught had been bombed years before and was still open to the sky; classes were held in U.N. tents. Mahmad invited us home to lunch, but we were pressed for time and declined. Then, a few miles on our way back to Kabul, our vehicle had a flat tire and we limped back to the area’s only gas station, which turned out to be near Mahmad’s house.
When we entered it, his family was eating a lunch of potatoes and eggs on the patio, and the old man leapt up to make room for us. Then he asked, a bit shyly, if we would like to see his study. I was impatient to leave, but assented out of courtesy. He led us up some stairs to a small room that seemed to glow with light. Every wall was covered with poems, Koranic verses and colored drawings of plants and animals. “Possessions are temporary but education is forever,” read one Islamic saying. Mahmad had perhaps a ninth-grade education, but he was the most knowledgeable man in his village, and for him it was a sacred responsibility. I felt humbled to have met him, and grateful for the flat tire that had led me to his secret shrine.
It was at such moments that I remembered why I was a journalist and why I had come to Afghanistan. It was in such places that I felt hope for the country’s future, despite the bleak statistics, the unaddressed human rights abuses, the seething ethnic rivalries, the widening cancer of corruption and drugs, and the looming struggle between the nation’s conservative Islamic soul and its compelling push to modernize.
When election day finally arrived, international attention focused on allegations of fraud at the polls, threats of Taliban sabotage and opposition sniping at Karzai’s advantages. In the end, as had been widely predicted, the president won handily over 17 rivals about whom most voters knew almost nothing. But at an important level, many Afghans who cast their ballots were not voting for an individual. They were voting for the right to choose their leaders, and for a system where men with guns did not decide their fates.
I had read all the dire reports; I knew things could still fall apart. Although the election was remarkably free of violence, a number of terrorist bombings and kidnappings struck the capital in the weeks that followed. But as I completed my tour of duty and prepared to return to the world of hot water and bright lights, smooth roads and electronic voting booths, I preferred to think of that chilly village schoolhouse and the face of that young farmer, poking a ballot into a plastic box and smiling to himself as he strode out of the room, wrapping his shawl a little tighter against the cold autumn wind.