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Afghanistan faces tough census job
( 2003-07-15 11:17) (Agencies)

Afghan authorities are taking a first step on the bumpy road toward next year's first-ever national elections - figuring out how many voters the country has.

As they start Afghanistan's first census in 24 years, they admit they can only hope for a rough idea of how many people live in this land, bound by secretive traditions and battered by years of war.

Just getting around the difficult terrain and getting answers to simple questions can pose big problems.

"We're just asking the heads of each household how many family members they've got," the head of the Central Statistics Office in Kabul, Mohammad Ali Watanyar, told The Associated Press on Monday.

It seems simple. But by tradition in this Muslim country, women are hidden away and men will rarely discuss their wives and daughters with strangers.

"We know that in many places, the head of a family is often a man who traditionally does not want to say how many daughters he has," Watanyar said. "But our surveyors are well-trained. We're expecting a good report."

Afghanistan's last national census was in 1979 - just before troops from the former Soviet Union invaded. Many surveyors who worked on that census have been recruited for the new one.

Nobody knows exactly how many people live in Afghanistan. The United Nations estimates it's over 25 million. Watanyar's office puts the figure at 23.7 million - including 1.5 million nomads - based on projected growth from the 13.5 million recorded in 1979.

This time, the Central Statistics Office has sent about 230 staffers across the country and has covered seven of Afghanistan's 32 provinces since the count's preliminary phase started in January. Watanyar hopes to finish the first phase by March 2004, a few months before national elections.

It's an ambitious task with a budget of $7 million.

Afghanistan is a large country with few paved roads. Surveyors are traveling in remote areas on horses, donkeys - even on foot. One team that left the capital, Kabul, for a northeastern village 10 days ago and has yet to arrive.

Security hasn't been a problem yet, but it could be. Rival factions have repeatedly clashed in the north, while rebels are waging a low-level insurgency along the country's southern and eastern borders with Pakistan.

Watanyar said only sparse information will be gathered from each family during the first phase of the census, followed almost immediately by a more extensive assessment.

The idea is to eventually make information available to aid groups and donors so Afghans can get the kind of help they need.

"We're not just conducting a population census - we're making an inventory of all our country's humanitarian needs," Watanyar said. "This is key to the reconstruction process."

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