After a 16-month struggle through war, a coup d’état, and an international intervention, Mali’s historic July 28th elections would prove critical in satiating both Malian and international eagerness to put past crises behind them. As a first tour officer in the political section, I was tasked with organizing U.S. Embassy Bamako's observation effort.
After weeks of preparation, sleepless nights, and logistics galore, we’d put a plan in place to field 29 teams in seven regions around the country to provide real-time election information. I’d like to say that on the morning of July 28, 2013, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. invigorated and confident in all our planning, but in truth I hadn’t slept a wink, as every possible scenario raced through my mind. The historical importance of the day provided a quick jolt of energy, though, as did a strong cup of coffee. These were being hailed as possibly the most important elections in Africa this year, and if successful, would mark this July 28th as the day Mali turned the page on its troubled transition.
At 6:00 a.m., I was at the U.S. Embassy; all the drivers were eager with their checklists and the vehicles were ready for depature. By 6:45 a.m., all of our observers had checked in, grabbed their forms, and were on their way to witness the opening of some of the 21,000 polling stations. I was based in the U.S. Embassy's "Command Center" with a team of six dedicated democracy defenders to monitor the safety of our observers and inform Washington on every twist and turn the day would bring. Over the course of 15 hours, we tracked movements, wrote briefs, gathered data, coordinated with other observation missions, and generally lived and breathed the elections.
The day was peaceful and almost celebratory, as Malians showed up in the highest ever turnout since their independence -- though, to be honest, the day remains a bit of a blur to me. Here is a taste of what we heard from our observers:
“Intense pride in Mali, young voter states civic duty as reason for voting.”
“Long lines, voters determined to find their polling stations.”
“Farmer at polling station since 6:05 a.m., won’t leave until vote is cast.”
“Gendarme accidentally dropped a tear gas canister; people are laughing through the coughing.”
“Atmosphere festive, Malians voting and celebrating at polling stations.”
"There's 'violence' in Koulikoro, three donkeys fighting to cheers of on-looking voters.”
“Sand storm and downpour dissuading voters, workers urge polls to stay open!”
“75 year-old woman crying as she casts her first ever vote!”
There’s no way to capture all the stories we heard throughout the day, but it was meaningful, highly rewarding, and incredibly exhausting. By 8:00 p.m., my body began to protest the days-long lack of sleep, and by 11:00 p.m., just after my fingers crawled across my keyboard to finalize the last update to Washington and answer one last question about the voter list, I collapsed into bed with visions of phones, ballots, and indelible ink. What remained in the morning were the memories of Malians proud and enthusiastic about their elections, the incredible synergy between everyone involved with the observations, and the lasting sense of honor at having played a small role in such an incredible and historic day.