Beni, Congo — They were barred from voting in Congo's presidential election. They voted anyway.
On Sunday, men and women gathered in Beni to cast paper ballots they hoped that someone, somewhere, might take seriously. Last week, the electoral commission made the surprise decision to bar some 1 million voters in Beni and Butembo, cities in eastern Congo affected by a deadly Ebola outbreak.
Protests followed the decision as people demanded to vote on Sunday with the rest of the country. Ebola facilities were attacked. Health workers suspended their work for days. The World Health Organization chief warned that "prolonged insecurity" could bring a spike in Ebola cases. Congo was dangerously politicizing the outbreak, the International Rescue Committee said.
The electoral commission had allowed candidates to campaign in the outbreak zone, protesters said. Health officials had been prepared to screen all voters for fever. Hand sanitizer was deployed for use in polling stations. Angry residents asked, what was the sudden danger?
The cancellation of the vote in the cities, which are centers of opposition support, undermines the credibility of the election to select a successor to departing President Joseph Kabila, critics said.
Officially, voting in Beni and Butembo will take place in March, months after Congo inaugurates its new president in mid-January.
Many Beni residents decided they couldn't wait.
They gathered at a stadium in the center of the city, carrying their voting registration cards. Youths wearing the vests of the electoral commission ringed the scene. A vuvuzela, the boisterous horn of soccer matches the world over, honked above the shouts of the crowd.
Following Ebola outbreak precautions, each person first washed their hands. "Voting, it's our right," they chanted in Swahili while standing in line.
Each was given a paper ballot — a piece of note paper, cut into pieces — to vote for president and national and provincial deputies. "Election Congo 2018," it read.
Carefully, with a ballpoint pen, one woman filled out her ballot and waved it in the air in triumph. She dropped it into the plastic voting container.
"I'm here because it's my right," said another voter, 24-year-old Jacob Salamu.
He said it was the first time he had ever voted. "I've been waiting here since 5 a.m. and I've just voted like my countrymen in Kinshasa and elsewhere," he said.
An organizer of Sunday's protest event, Paulin Mwithe, said the votes would be transmitted to the local bureau of Congo's electoral commission and to the United Nations peacekeeping mission, which has been in the region for years amid threats from rebel groups.
The ballots will reach Kinshasa, the capital, in time to be announced with all the others, Mwithe declared.
By midday, thousands of people were waiting in line in several locations around Beni.
Near one of the makeshift polling stations, someone had placed a wooden cross. It said "Joseph Kabila."