'You know, you are the only woman here'
Last Updated: Monday, August 17, 2009 | 2:34 PM ET
By Susan Ormiston CBC News
As a journalist, there are days that you will never forget. Friday was one of them.
We were invited to join Dr. Abdullah Abdullah on a campaign jaunt to Daykundi, a province high in the mountains in central Afghanistan.
We were keen to meet him, as he seems to be Hamid Karzai's chief challenger for the presidency, at least according to one recent poll.
The arrangements for campaign trips here are highly cloak and dagger. For good reason. No one wants to give the insurgents time to plan an attack.CBC reporter Susan Ormiston, the only female at the rally for Abdullah Abdullah in Daykundi, Afghanistan. (CBC)
So we meet at 7:30 in the morning and are escorted by armed guard to Dr. Abdullah's home in Kabul.
From there, we hop in a pickup truck for a hair-raising ride to the airport, horns blaring, swerving around carts and cars with armed guards as outriders.
There's clearly truth in the local saying that car accidents kill more people than the insurgents do in this country.
Turns out, the urgency was as much about flight plans as security.
President Karzai was also flying out that day and we had to cool our heels on the tarmac for an hour until his flight cleared and security restrictions were lifted.
It gave us a perfect opportunity to interview Dr. Abdullah, once Karzai's foreign affairs minister, in a typically unpredictable setting. Sitting cross-legged on the tarmac.
He was on a prayer carpet. I was on the runway under the shadow of an old Russian helicopter. It seemed perfectly natural.
He looks over at the Ariana flight taking off and observes, "That's probably Karzai's plane, the National airline, and I bet he doesn't pay for it either. So much for a level playing field."
Abdullah is running as the underdog in this campaign. But now he has some momentum — the poll gave him 26 per cent support — he's riding it. "Lots has changed in these last few months," he says.
He is referring to the fact that Karzai was once going to sweep the election but now will have to battle hard to win the 50 per cent majority needed to secure the presidency, particularly on this first ballot.
If Abdullah and the others can keep him below that threshold in Thursday's vote, there will have to be a runoff election.
That one, in a few months time, could have a much different dynamic.
The only womanMeet the press: Presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan's former foreign minister, talks with the CBC's Susan Ormiston on the tarmac at Kabul. (CBC)
Once up in the air, our two choppers sweep northwest out of Kabul towards Bamyan, dipping between mountain ridges.
Daykundi is a small, rugged province, once part of Bamyan. It's highly liberating to see the Afghan landscape from 8,000 feet, far above the daily threats of roadside bombs that restricts our travel.
An hour into the trip, the rock turns moon-like and the dust kicks up as we descend onto a mountain plateau. This is remote Afghanistan and 100 metres in the distance we see a huge crowd of people, maybe 2,000, rising out of the dust like a mirage.
They are waiting to greet Abdullah and they're impatient.
At first he strides into the crowd, then thinks better of it and hops into a van. His manager yells at us excitedly, "get into the car, into a car," as the crowd starts to push forward excitedly.
Cameraman Dave Rae hops onto the bumper of the van carrying Abdullah and speeds off bumping and grinding on a goat path, enthusiastic supporters running behind.
The manager jerks open the door of another van, orders a passenger out and pushes me into the front seat. Stuffed in the back are five Afghan men who are no doubt wondering about this blond intruder, a woman no less.
It's a race down the hill for two kilometres. People seem to emerge from behind giant boulders to chase the convoy, running alongside as we head for the nearby village.
I'm hanging out the window snapping pictures and villagers are snapping as many in return.
The view from 8,000 feet
The speech site is the town square, which is topped by a huge yellow tarp to keep out the scorching sun.At the political rally in Daykundi, women can only listen from the far side of the wall. (CBC)
As I hop onto the podium with the entourage, I look out to see thousands of men, as far as we can see, faces upturned, waiting for Abdullah's address.
Our translator turns to me and says "you know, you're the only woman here."
I do know that.
Only it's not exactly true. There are women present — just not to be seen.
The women who want to hear Abdullah are herded into a separate outdoor square, out of site of the rally but within listening distance.
They're not allowed to join the men watching.
At one point, as Abdullah pushes his agenda for change, he promises the crowd "we will educate your sons."
I venture into the women's area to see how they are reacting. There are a few hundred women there, from very young girls to old women, grouped quietly, listening, but not seeing.
In so many ways, Afghanistan is changing. But for much of the population, cultural norms are very entrenched and, if you are a presidential candidate, you don't win votes by advocating women's rights. At least not in Dykundi a week before the election.
Our visit ends with a push and shove back through the throng for another grinding ride to the district centre.
We eat lunch — kidney stew with rice and Afghan bread. And then climb aboard the choppers to fly back to the capital.
Cameraman Dave Rae captures Abdullah at the end of the day: he's sitting at the chopper's open door, 8,000 feet up, gazing out over the Afghan landscape, a cup of tea in his hands.