In the cool, blue walled wards of Herat’s central hospital, in western Afghanistan, 11 Afghan voters lay on their beds, nursing bandaged hands.
These humble farmers from the village of Rabat Sangi, 49 miles away, knew the risks of voting for Afghanistan’s new president. And when the Taliban stopped them at a checkpoint outside their village, they knew the retribution would be swift.
“They stopped our car,” said Kamaluddin, a white-bearded village elder, “and when they saw the ink on our fingers they took us to a place where a couple of them were sitting and said because you voted we have to cut off your fingers, everyone who voted, we have to cut off their fingers. They took us to a room, then they put my hand on a piece of wood and they cut off my finger with a knife.” Kamaluddin raised his bloodstained bandaged hand for emphasis.
“But we have to cast our votes, we have to. Without voting we can do nothing.”
Another victim, in his 20s, hid his face from our camera with a sheet before he spoke, for fear of further punishment from the Taliban. “They held us for three or four hours, then they took us to a place where they said to wait for a decision from their commanders. They said maybe we will kill you, or maybe we will just cut your fingers. Then after a while they said the leaders had decided they should cut our fingers, the fingers that were marked with ink from voting. And then they took us to a room and cut off our fingers.”
“The Taliban are not inside our village but they are everywhere outside,” said Abdul Rahman, who had driven the men to the polling station that day. “Anywhere outside the village they can get you, and if you do something against them they can come after you easily.
"But I don’t regret voting, because whatever is supposed to happen to me will happen. Each day one man will die and another will come into this world."
In the room next door, Mir Ahmed, a farmer from the hamlet of Dehlika, removed the bed sheets from the two children beside him. Their tiny bodies, scarred by shrapnel wounds, were covered in dried blood. One, a six-year-old girl, had lost two fingers on her right hand in the explosion. The children stared listlessly into the air as their uncle spoke.
“The fighting started at 6:30 in the morning, when a rocket hit a tuk-tuk in our village. I don’t know whether the rocket was fired by the Taliban or the government, but it hit the tuk-tuk, and four of my family were killed and four injured. Our house is very close to the polling station, we were about to cast our votes when this happened. We took the bodies and our injured away, it was difficult for us, we didn’t know what to do,” Ahmed said.
“The Taliban are against voting, they say no one should cast their votes. They burned our crops that day, our crops are completely lost. First we brought the kids to Shindand then with the help of someone else from there I brought them here to Herat. After I got here I heard the clashes started again in our village. The Taliban don’t like elections at all. All the people in the village fled their homes because of the fighting; all the women and children ran and hid in the desert. These kids here are my brother’s children, he stayed behind to bury their mother and their grandmother and two others from our family. The children don’t know yet that they are dead,” Ahmed said.
While writing this article, word reached VICE News that Afghan troops had hunted down and killed Mullah Shir Agha, the Taliban commander who judged the 11 men and ordered their mutilation for the crime of voting. When we rang the farmers to tell them, we heard them laugh together from their beds.
“I am very happy to hear this,” one said, “this is very good news.”
Most of the men had been too frightened to speak to us on camera, but those that did remained defiant.
“If I lost all the ten fingers on my hands to vote, I’d still vote again,” said one worn-faced 60-year-old farmer, “because it is our right.”