Page last updated at 13:46 GMT, Thursday, 23 September 2010 14:46 UK

Young Afghans embrace election hope

By Lyse Doucet
BBC News, Kabul

Millions of Afghans cast their vote in recent elections and it is the number of young people who got involved which might be Afghanistan's best chance for democracy.

Parliamentary candidate Janan Mosazai
Mr Mosazai feels it will take time to win public confidence in Afghan politics

The teenage girls in white headscarves shrieked and pointed.

"There he is - Janan Mosazai."

He turned to see them sitting in the bright Kabul sun outside Zarghoona High School.

"We saw your campaign poster," they called out.

"Did you vote for me?" he asked.

"Yes - a bundle of votes," they declared, collapsing in excited giggles.

The candidate gave them the big smile he has been flashing for weeks, as he walked the streets of Kabul or sat cross-legged on village carpets trying to convince Afghans to vote for him - a 30-year-old who has come home to Kabul after his studies in Canada.

The last time Janan went to Zarghoona Girls' School was in January 2002.

A female student holds up a peace sign as she waits for Kofi Annan to visit her school in 2002
A Zarghoona Girls' School pupil greets the UN Secretary General in 2002.

The then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was visiting Kabul, a city bathed in the infectious optimism unleashed by the end of Taliban rule and its harsh edicts including barring girls from school.

Zarghoona had just reopened its doors. The UN Chief was greeted by eager students singing "we want peace" in English as well as Dari and Pashto.

Janan translated for the Secretary General. His language skills had attracted the notice of the UN as it scrambled to rebuild its mission, and as it embarked on a reconstruction project it described as one of the biggest in its history.

War legacy

I found myself remembering those heady days this past week, during the parliamentary elections, as I spent time with many young Afghans I first met nearly nine years ago.

When we joined Janan on his campaign trail, I could not help but recall our first conversations in late 2001, when he pondered his future while his country was suddenly given a new chance.

The war had led to Kabul University being closed for long periods. Janan was studying medicine then because, like many Afghan men, his father told him to be a doctor. But the fighting meant he was unable to finish his course.

Another of the young Afghans I met then had left behind his job selling so-called antiques in a hotel in the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

He came to Kabul with the high school certificate of a refugee, whose meagre results were also an indictment of a war which had destroyed his childhood and killed members of his family.

And there also was the teenage boy, out on the streets of Kabul night and day, shining shoes to try to earn a fistful of notes to feed his large family.

The choices of the young generation have always seemed to be a barometer of progress when a country is given a new start

Nine years on, they are all still in Kabul.

The refugee with a patchy high school record managed to talk his way into a scholarship and has just returned home after four years of university in the United States.

The shoeshine boy is now a talented journalist.

Like countless young Afghans, he grabbed the opportunities provided by a greater international presence and the sudden availability of English language and computer courses in his city.

There are many more stories like this, including many about young women.

Their decision to take on public roles is a brave one. They fight threats and pressure not just from Taliban, but from within their conservative society.

Youth politics

In my years of reporting for the BBC, the choices of the young generation have always seemed to be a barometer of progress when a country is given a new start.

Sadly, all too often, hope founders.

Election posters
Final election results are not expected until late October.

In Afghanistan nine years on, in a country where violence and corruption grow, and the world seems to be looking for a way out, some young people are now asking where their future lies. But these parliamentary elections told a more hopeful story.

About half of the 2,500 candidates vying for office were under the age of 30.

Some are, of course, sons and daughters of the rich and powerful, including the warlords who dominated and destroyed parts of this country.

Others are educated men and women, untainted by links to the past, hoping to redefine the future.

All of their lives, from birth, have been shaped by a 30 year war.

This week, as the votes are being counted, I asked Janan how it went.

"It was a sobering lesson for all of us," he reflected. "It will take a lot longer than we thought to win back the trust and confidence of the people."

But there are many on his side in this new war. Seven thousand young Afghan volunteers make up the largest observer mission, the Free and Fair Election Foundation.

Its voice has been one of the loudest in pointing to voting irregularities. It is headed by the young Afghans who seized opportunities to play a role from the day the Taliban was ousted.

In 2001, as the world focused on Afghanistan, it was often said this was "the country's best chance in a generation".

Many young Afghans know they are the generation that must take that chance - as difficult and as dangerous as it is.

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