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'She was a warrior'

The Globe and Mail

MARKHAM, ONT. — It is every family's photo album – a bit banged up and full of black-and-whites; some crinkled by too many thumbs, others trimmed with zigzag shears that made for such a smart look in the 1970s.

Afghanistan was a different place then, a fact made only too clear by the photos of women, their smiling faces out front and without fear, not hidden behind someone else's idea of propriety.

If they could have coaxed her shining presence back to the safety of their suburban Toronto home, Sitara Achakzai's relatives surely would have. When Ms. Achakzai was shot dead in Kandahar on Sunday, this wish, along with dreams for their lost country, died right along with her.

“I always wish that I could do something about it because I still have memories of back home,” Ajmal Maiwand, 32-year-old nephew of Ms. Achakzai, said yesterday. “Do I wish I could fix it? Yes, but logically, I can't think of anything that would fix the mess that it is.”

Ms. Achakzai, 52, had been trying to do just that since 2004, when she returned to the family homeland to advocate for women's rights and serve Kandahar as a provincial councillor. She had been away since 1990, having fled to Germany with her husband after a decade of Soviet occupation, while her extended family left that same year and found their way to Canada.

They had all grown up together in a radically different Afghanistan, where women enjoyed respect, meaningful work and a rightful place at the table of public discourse. A photo in the family album shows an early-1970s women's rally in support of the democratic reforms of then-monarch Mohammed Zahir Shah, whose long reign had helped modernize Afghan society.

It was into this environment that Mr. Maiwand and his siblings were born, and Ms. Achakzai, their young live-in aunt, played as much a role in raising them as their parents did. She, like their parents, was a teacher, which meant plenty of play, but also tough life lessons.

“She used to take me to school and I used to cry because I didn't want to walk,” said Mr. Maiwand, now a jail guard. “I wanted to take the rickshaw and she always made fun of me.”

His youngest sister, 23-year-old Maryam, was still a preschooler when the family fled Afghanistan, but admired her aunt and looked forward to her phone calls and yearly visits to Canada. She always brought gifts, along with accounts of her work as an educator and community worker, but often glossed over the trials of life as a woman in Kandahar to avoid upsetting her already fearful family.

“When she was here, we really didn't talk much about what was happening back home,” said Ms. Maiwand, who is studying child and youth work at a community college. “It was quite traumatic for my mom … but she would at times tell us about what was going on, about women's rights and how they were repressed back home.”

Ms. Maiwand never got a chance to talk to her aunt about what she called the “disgusting” new Afghan law that legalizes rape within marriage, a law her aunt opposed, which may well explain her assassination. Ms. Achakzai was well aware of the threats against her, but eschewed heavy security, and instead altered her route to work and wore a different coloured burka each day, her family said.

During every phone call and visit to Canada, Ms. Maiwand's mother, Mawena, would beg her younger sister to leave Kandahar. She made her most recent plea two weeks ago after Ms. Achakzai survived a suicide attack on the provincial council office. As it turned out, Mawena Maiwand learned of her sister's death on Sunday morning, as she was watching news from home on a satellite TV news channel in her Markham living room. A bulletin about Ms. Achakzai's shooting, along with an onscreen photograph of her, interrupted the broadcast.

Yesterday, as they graciously endured a further media intrusion, Ms. Achakzai's family thumbed through their old photos and reflected on how they now feel that much farther removed from the Afghanistan they once knew – and may never know again.

“Everybody who's here in Canada and left Afghanistan 15 or 20 years ago, they cannot understand it,” Mr. Maiwand said, describing how the Taliban's brutal repression forced his aunt to cover herself and walk stiffly down the same street where she rode her bicycle, wind in her hair, as a girl.

“She was a warrior, she was a brave woman and she always fought for women's rights and the poor's rights; that's why they didn't like her,” he said. “It's a loss for everybody; for democracy, basically, because she fought for everybody.”

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