After the murder of Sitara Achakzai, I didn’t want her death to go unnoticed in the West. I contacted several media outlets to let them know I had an audio recording of Sitara telling her life story. After a radio piece aired on PRI’s “The World,” I used the audio as they had edited it and added still photos to create a multimedia feature titled, “The Life and Death of Sitara Achakzai.” In honor of Sitara’s memory, we now present this feature here on Altmuslimah.
Her enormous smile and quick laugh was the first thing I noticed about Sitara Achakzai when I met her. It was March 8th, 2009, when the world celebrates International Women’s Day. I was in Kandahar, Afghanistan, to document the unprecedented event of hundreds of typically homebound Kandahari women coming out in public to pray for peace. For many women in Kandahar, unlike some other places in Afghanistan, little has changed since the fall of the Taliban. Kandahar was and is the Taliban’s home city, and when the regime fell in 2001, the local culture simply continued on as it had before. As they did in pre-Taliban times, many women in Kandahar still spend their lives within the confines of their compound walls, leaving home infrequently, if at all.
I have been photographing stories about women in Afghanistan since 2005; in 2007 I began working on a book and multimedia project together with my friend and colleague Rangina Hamidi, an Afghan-American entrepreneur and women’s activist who lives and works in Kandahar. Rangina has heard the compelling stories of Kandahari women in all walks of life, and she asked me to collaborate on a project profiling some of these women.
Sitara straightaway made a strong impression on me: her feisty nature, lively wit and intelligence were all immediately apparent. Rangina and I had asked her to be among the women we were profiling for our project, and she readily agreed. We spent a number of days with her as she went about her business in Kandahar. She was one of only four female members of the Kandahar Provincial Council, a governing body that functions something like a state legislature in the United States. By law in Afghanistan, 25% of the seats of any such elected body are reserved for women, and Sitara had won one of these. With her we spent time at a Council meeting, observing how men from around the province would come to air grievances and petition for help with all sorts of problems. Sitara noted with pride that many petitioners saw the women councilors as less corrupt and therefore as better advocates for their causes than some of their male counterparts.
After going to college and working as a teacher and high school principal as young woman, Sitara had left her native Kandahar to marry an Afghan man who was living and working in Germany. She lived with him there for many years, learning to speak German and becoming a dual citizen. In 2003 she and her husband left their comfortable life in Germany to return to Afghanistan where they felt they were needed, and as educated citizens could assist in rebuilding their country. She knew it would be difficult, but she threw herself into her work in Afghanistan with dedication.
In the process of gathering material for her profile, I found myself in Sitara’s kitchen one day as she cooked us a delicious Afghan lunch. I tried to communicate in my broken German, a language foreign to us both, and one I am only slightly better acquainted with than her native Pashto. On the wall was a clock acquired in Europe, proclaiming “Sitara’s Küche” (Sitara’s Kitchen) on its face. Around the room were other touches, like European kitchen utensils and decorative plastic fruit, that were evidence of her years in Germany. Later that afternoon Rangina and I sat down with my audio equipment to record an in-depth interview with Sitara about her life. I was taken with Sitara’s frankness, her commitment, and her tenacity in the face of immense difficulties. I was looking forward to further developing her profile and including her in the cross section of women in our project.
On the morning of April 12th, 2009, ten days after I had returned home to Boston from Afghanistan, I was awakened by a phone call from a very distressed Rangina, informing me of the horrifying news that Sitara had been murdered a few hours earlier. Sitara was returning home from a Provincial Council meeting, and as she got out of a rickshaw taxi in front of her home she found two men on a motorcycle holding automatic weapons waiting for her. They gunned her down and sped off. She was dead before her body hit the ground. The Taliban took credit for her assassination.
As representatives of the government, all the members of the Provincial Council, both male and female, have a price on their heads from insurgent groups, although the women may be more vulnerable targets. Sitara had even joked about it with the other councilors. But she had seen the writing on the wall and knew it was time to get out. She had tickets to leave the country with her husband and adopted daughter at the end of the month. Their plan was to temporarily leave Afghanistan until after the August elections, at which point they would reassess the security situation and decide if it was safe enough to return. Unfortunately, she didn’t live long enough to use her ticket.
After her murder, I didn’t want her death to go unnoticed in the West. I contacted several media outlets to let them know I had an audio recording of Sitara telling her life story. CBC radio in Canada picked it up, as did The World, a radio news program that is a co-production of the BBC, PRI and WGBH in Boston. After the radio piece that The World produced was aired, I used the audio as they had edited it and added still photos to create a multimedia feature titled, “The Life and Death of Sitara Achakzai.” In honor of Sitara’s memory, we now present this feature here on Altmuslimah.
Along with Sitara’s family and many friends, I mourn her untimely death. Afghanistan desperately needs more people with Sitara’s dedication, intelligence, integrity and tenacity to rebuild the country.
May she rest in peace, and may her memory be for a blessing.
Paula Lerner is an independent photojournalist and multimedia producer based in Boston. Her work can be seen at http://www.lernerphoto.com