Months before her killing, Malala Maiwand, 24, a female Afghan journalist and women’s rights campaigner, was clear about how central peace was to an emancipated future in her war-torn country.
“There is no life without peace,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan in February. “All of our needs can only be met in peace.”
“In contrast to war, peace means that you don’t have to live in constant fear of being killed,” she added. “The right to education, shelter, healthcare, work, and free speech can only be protected when there is peace in a society and the country.”
Maiwand was killed by gunmen on the morning of December 10. She and her driver were sprayed with bullets as she stepped into her waiting car outside her home to be driven to work at Enikas, a private television station in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.
The ultra-radical Islamic State (IS) militants claimed responsibility for the attack, Reuters reported. Later in the day Ziaul Haq Amarkhel, the governor of Nangarhar, where Jalalabad is the capital, announced that her killers had been arrested.
Her killing appears to be part of an assassination campaign aimed at silencing journalists and civil society activists at a crucial moment in Afghanistan’s troubled history. Afghan civilians are paying a heavy toll as Kabul and the Taliban inch toward an agreement over their country’s political future after the scheduled departure of U.S. and allied international troops next year.
The ‘Dark Age’ For Women
Maiwand, who was named after an iconic 19th-century Afghan heroine, was a bold and articulate journalist in Nangarhar. In addition to reporting and hosting shows at Enikas, she was the lone woman cricket commentator, which added to her popularity in the cricket-crazy country.
Nangarhar, the large Afghan province where Maiwand lived and worked, has reeled from violence. In recent years, thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have been displaced by attacks and infighting between the Taliban and IS militants in the eastern region bordering Pakistan. The province has also been the scene of large-scale militant operations by Afghan and international troops.
After growing up in the post-Taliban Afghanistan, Maiwand opposed the return of the group’s hard-line regime and occasionally aired her fears about life under a future government following a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
In brief comments to Radio Free Afghanistan ahead of the landmark agreement between the Taliban and the United States in February, she termed the harsh regime in the 1990s as a “dark age” for Afghan women. She said Afghans are likely to welcome the Taliban if they follow in Hizb-e Islami’s footsteps of joining the political system after a deal with the government. That group’s leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, returned to Kabul in 2017 after concluding a peace deal with the government the previous year. He gave up fighting and recognized the country’s current political system.
“No Afghan, especially women, can accept the return of the Taliban regime,” she noted. “I want to get an assurance from you as a government leader,” she asked Hamdullah Mohib, the Afghan national security adviser, in July at a meeting of Nangarhar’s elites. “After a peace deal with the Taliban, will I be allowed to participate in a gathering like this, come to the mic and ask questions like I am doing today?”
Maiwand’s uncle Qari Ali Khan said she had been receiving threats for some time.
“She has been reporting for the private Enikas TV in the rural areas for years, but I am surprised she was targeted in the heart of the city,” he told journalists after her funeral. “All sides need to respect and protect the lives of journalists after this murder,” he added. “They are neutral, and I am proud of my niece that she embraced martyrdom in the line of duty.”
Gul Mohammad Mullah, Maiwand’s father, said he will encourage his other daughters to step into her place and serve their country. “I want the provincial governor and the government to seriously peruse this case and find her killers,” he said.
Amarkhel, who led Maiwand’s funeral prayer, said the authorities had arrested Maiwand’s murderers. “In line with the pledge that I made to the family of my martyred sister and to Nangarhar’s people, we arrested her assassins with the cooperation of our security forces,” he tweeted. “They will be punished for their crimes in accordance with the law.”
Afghan authorities have rarely resolved the murders of journalists over the past two decades. Maiwand was the third Afghan journalist to be killed in a month.
On December 10, the Afghan Interior Ministry said it had arrested a “Taliban terrorist” directly involved in the assassination of RFE/RL journalist Mohammad Ilyas Dayee. He was killed in a magnetic bomb attack in the restive southern Afghan province of Helmand on November 12. Dayee had told Human Rights Watch that he had received many death threats to stop him from reporting on Taliban military operations.
Yama Siawash, a former television presenter and current employee of Afghanistan’s Central Bank, was killed in a similar attack in Kabul on November 7.
“We demand the authorities conduct serious investigations and expose who’s behind this murder,” said Afghan reporter Shershah Hamdard, head of the Afghan Journalists Protection Committee branch for eastern Afghanistan. “We want to see these murderers meet justice.”
Zabihullah Ghazi, another journalist in Jalalabad, says that so far even the motives and those responsible for dozens of journalist killings in Afghanistan are not known. “At least we should know who is killing us,” he said.
A History Of Unsolved Murders
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a global media watchdog, 51 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan since 1994. The authorities have resolved only a handful of these murders.
Maiwand is not the first victim in her family. Five years ago, her mother, also an activist, was killed by unknown gunmen. “We are still ready to sacrifice more for our homeland,” her younger brother Bilal Hammad told mourners in Jalalabad. “Our enemies will run out of bullets, but they will not be able to finish us off.”
Maiwand, however, had different plans for her siblings and for herself.
“I have no intention to get married yet,” she said in a recent video. “I want my [younger] sister to graduate from university and eventually become a doctor. I will then pursue my master’s degree,” she added. “I want to think about marriage after I help my siblings to stand on their own two feet.”
At her funeral, her uncle Khan recalled that Malala knew from a young age that she wanted to become a journalist.
“I want to request all journalists to not abandon their profession after this murder,” he said. “You should not surrender to fear.”