A young Taliban gunman with intent to kill locked eyes with Rokey Suleman and advanced toward the Afghanistan elections security analyst as he hunkered behind a table in a Kabul hotel.
Moments before, Suleman had seen the gunman, dressed all in white, stand over a colleague and fire at close range. It would turn out to be part of a coordinated attack by four Taliban fighters bent on undermining a presidential election. The assault happened on Afghanistan’s equivalent of New Year’s Eve in 2014.
“At that moment, I had the most clear thought I ever had. ‘I’m not going to die here,’” said the now 49-year-old who is the new director of elections in far less embattled Richland County.
The Kabul job was the first combat-zone elections adviser assignment for the globetrotting Ohio native, an unlikely – many would say overqualified – person to accept the Richland County job despite skepticism from his father and even his doctor.
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Suleman (pronounced SOO-le-man) owes his survival to an Afghan news reporter whose words to the gunman caused him to pause, giving Suleman a chance to flee the popular buffet room in the five-star Serena Hotel to a designated safe room.
The French news agency reporter, Sardar Ahmad, had his 2-year-old son in his arms as his wife and two daughters huddled around him. They were under a table while Suleman’s eyes darted, looking for a hiding place.
“I didn’t try to stop them. I didn’t try to attack them,” Suleman said of what proved to be two gunmen who had invaded the buffet room. “I ran. I left that family sitting there. I deal with a lot of survivor’s guilt for that because Sadar saved my life.”
All but Ahmad’s 2-year-old would die that night, March 20, 2014. The boy survived four bullet wounds from one of the pistols, Suleman said.
Suleman looks back on a 13-year career in the elections business that took him to seven nations, three states and the District of Columbia. He sees with the clear eyes of a man who has decided that bullets, body armor and riots are in his past.
“It’s time to settle down,” he said of the job that pays $81,000.
His father, Rokey Suleman Jr., who lives with his second wife in Irmo, knew his son had applied for the Richland County job at the urging of the younger Suleman’s girlfriend. She, too, had tired of him working overseas in hostile places.
“I told him, ‘Roke, it’s a mess,’” said the elder Suleman, a retired utility company lineman, said of the Richland County office. He had read news articles about the chaotic 2012 presidential election that left Richland County voters in line for hours. “‘They keep firing people and hiring people and firing them again. You’re kind of crazy to take this job.’”
His son didn’t listen. But so far, the report card on Suleman’s performance during the past four months is good.
“The guy’s not one of us, but he’s so competent,” said Rusty DePass, a vocal critic of the county’s Elections & Voter Registration office who has sued the office twice.
“This guy starts out with a clean slate with me,” DePass said.
On that March night three years ago, Suleman found temporary safety under the rectangular wooden table because Ahmad motioned a stunned and scared Suleman to huddle with them.
Moments before, Suleman had been eating with election-monitoring colleague Luis Maria Duarte, a Paraguayan who so loved the Beatles that he played bass, Paul McCartney’s instrument, in a tribute band back in Asunción, the South American country’s capital.
Thinking back on his friend Duarte’s death, Suleman said, “I often wonder why him instead of me?”
The popping sound behind Suleman that day had turned to recognizable gunfire.
“He’s just shooting, and at that moment, I’m like, ‘Holy ----, this is a terrorist attack!’ I’m frozen.
“I looked at Luis and said, ‘Dive.’
As the gunman in white walked toward him and the Ahmad family, whatever Ahmad said stopped him and diverted the gunman’s attention to two Canadian women. He shot and killed them, then ran out of bullets, Suleman said.
It would be 90 minutes to two hours before Afghan security forces would kill all four gunmen, most in their teens, and free the survivors. Nine people were killed.
Suleman would return to Afghanistan in August 2014 to help determine the outcome in an election that had been fraught with fraud.
He has worked as a monitor and analyst for a Warsaw-based elections group and for other elections organizations in hotspots such as Egypt, Russia (including Vladimir Putin’s second election), Mongolia, the former Soviet republic of Georgia, Nepal and Montenegro, once part of Yugoslavia.
Richland County seemed tame.
Suleman, who was living in Manassas, Va., at the time, had credentials beyond his career in elections. He was a member for 10 years of Mensa, the high IQ society that requires its members to score in the top 2 percent of standardized intelligence tests. He has a degrees in history and public administration.
Suleman was the first in his working-class family to get a college degree, his father said of the son who was reading newspapers in kindergarten – and consuming five per day in high school. His son also had two paper routes as a boy, mowed grass and pumped gas, his father said.
He’s the third “Rokey” in the family that originally hails from Croatia. When they go back to Ohio, father and son are “Big Roke” and “Little Roke.”
Suleman said he was aware of the troubles during Richland County’s 2012 election that included the highly charged referendum in which voters approved a transportation penny sales tax.
Election commissioners who interviewed him when he applied handed him scores of news articles that chronicled the disruptions, fewer voting machines than required by state law and hours of waiting in line at the polls as well as the public outcry and legal challenges that followed.
Commission Chairwoman Adell Adams said she and the other commissioners checked Suleman’s background, including his August 2011 resignation under pressure as director of Washington, D.C.’s of Board of Elections and Ethics.
“He had had some problems, but he resolved them all,” Adams said. “That was positive. He had some of the same problems we have here. Our problems are with County Council (funding). He could help us get through that.”
Adams said commissioners in this solidly blue county wanted to be sure Suleman is a Democrat, which he acknowledges. His strong personality, other answers and experience persuaded the board to hire him.
Adams said she got pushback from a Richland County legislative delegation member whom she declined to identify to a reporter.
She told senators she wanted Suleman, the first Caucasian director since the elections and voter registration offices were consolidated in 2011.
“I’m very happy with him,” said Adams, once a leader of the Columbia office of the NAACP.
Suleman said he has been a lifelong Democrat but considers himself a moderate. “Since leaving Ohio, I’ve tried to have a bipartisan position,” he said.
DePass, a longtime Republican and once chairman of the State Election Commission, finds Suleman to be a paradox.
“He comes from D.C. He’s white. He’s obviously a liberal,” said DePass, who hasn’t met Suleman but has received reports about him. “There are just some unexpected things involved.
“We’ll see if these wackos here can corrupt him,” DePass said. “I’m not in any way suggesting he’s corruptible. But they’re going to try, I can guarantee you that.”