, KABUL, Aug 20 – Striding out of a polling booth in central Kabul as one of the first Afghans to cast his vote early Thursday, Ramin held aloft an ink-stained finger and proudly proclaimed: "I have voted."
"I’m proud of my finger," the 27-year-old security guard told AFP.
"It’s the symbol of a great day for Afghanistan.
"I don’t care about the Taliban and their threats. Who do they think they are? We have a government, police, army, the infrastructure of a functioning state. The Taliban are all talk."
Ramin was among about 20 people who began queuing outside the Abdul Hadi Dawi secondary school before the 7 am (0230 GMT) start of voting despite fears of violence, to beat the crowds and the heat of the day.
Standing nearby, churning a string of white worry beads through hands held behind his back, Omar said he wanted to use his vote to bring honest leadership to his impoverished, corrupted country.
"I want a person who is strong, who will work to develop the economy, build roads and schools, make education a priority, annihilate corruption," said Omar, 60, who like many Afghans only uses one name.
As the gates opened on the dot of seven, those in the queue moved slowly forward to be lightly frisked by security guards before making their way to separate rooms set up as voting stations for men and women.
Outside what usually serves as a teacher’s room — lined with metal lockers and with charts taped to the walls — Babi Haji stood patiently, her body shrouded in a diaphanous white cotton shawl and looking older than her 44 years.
She knew the horrors of repression and years of civil war that had seemed endless until the 2001 US-led invasion toppled the Taliban, she said.
"I lost an arm 11 years ago when the car I was in hit a landmine," she said.
"Now I want my children to be well fed and safe. That’s why I have come to select a president who will bring us a secure future."
Sur Gul, a caretaker at the school wearing a dark green turban and tawny shalwar khameez, clutched his voter registration card and proudly showed the hole punched in it last time he voted for his president in 2004.
He was looking forward to getting the second hole in it, he said, before he shuffled towards the voting room in his open-toed plastic sandals.
Voting got off to a slow but steady start compared to the long queues that gathered before polling stations opened in 2004 amid a sweeping nationwide security clampdown to prevent threatened Taliban attacks.
Seventeen million Afghans have registered to elect a president and 420 councillors in 34 provinces across the largely rural and impoverished country.
Across the country, Afghans appeared determined to defy a prolonged Taliban anti-election campaign of violence aimed at keeping them away from the polls.
In Kandahar, one of the Taliban hotspots — and the capital of the extremist regime during its 1996-2001 rule — voters could be seen walking towards voting stations to join lengthening lines.
"There are problems in Kandahar but I’m still voting, said 40-year-old Mohammad Nisar.
"I’m voting for the sake of a good future, I have brought my female relatives too," he said, gesturing towards three veiled women sitting in a nearby car.
In eastern Nangahar province, 80-year-old Abdul Aziz said his vote would go to the candidate he believed could bring clean government.
"I’m voting against corruption," he said without revealing his choice.
"I’m so glad to be voting at this age. I’m happy that I’m alive and voting again."
In Kabul, Wadood Ghorbandi, a 58-year-old investment director said: "This election sees us as Afghans choosing our own fate. It will bring changes for every single person and will give our country an identity.
"Man is always seeking change. Every step forward that we take is in reality a change. But the change must be positive, not negative," he said.