KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN - In the hour before her killers pulled up beside the rickshaw and shot her at close range, Sitara Achakzai turned to a female politician riding beside her with a strange look.
"I'm not afraid of death," said Ms. Achakzai, a well-known women's rights advocate and one of three elected women sitting on Kandahar's provincial council. "I can go and get killed and it's no big deal."
Ms. Achakzai's friend, a provincial councillor who narrowly escaped death in a bombing at council headquarters less than two weeks ago, was so stunned by the comment, made just before the rickshaw pulled up to her stop, she got out without asking what prompted the revelation. Not long after, news came yesterday that she would never have another chance.
Ms. Achakzai, a dual Afghan and German citizen who returned to help rebuild her country in 2004, was shot at close range by gunmen on motorbikes before her rickshaw could finish the slow crawl back to her home.
Within minutes of the killing, news of Ms. Achakzai's death had spread like wildfire across Kandahar. The killing has both horrified and terrified many educated women in the city, who looked up to the councillor as a role model.
"She is someone who was very well educated and understood what she was doing," said a prominent businesswoman in Kandahar who has known Ms. Achakzai since her childhood.
"As a woman, I was proud to see someone who was so proud of herself. In many meetings, even when there were men around, she just put her head up so high with such pride it made me proud to be around her," the businesswoman said.
Although outspoken about women's rights in the past, Ms. Achakzai's friend asked last night that her name not be published for fear publicity would increase threats to her own life. Gulping for air at times and choking back tears, the woman was audibly struggling with disbelief over Ms. Achakzai's death, which has already renewed fears among the burgeoning class of progressive women in this ultra-conservative city. "I want the world to understand how every person in this crazy place is feeling because this is a wake-up call to all of us that we could be next," the woman said, sobbing. "The sad thing is nobody cares, it seems."
In recent months, security in Kandahar has markedly deteriorated - even international forces working to secure the province have admitted the city is experiencing a low point. In addition to regular kidnappings of locals and foreign contractors, the downward spiral in the city has had a particular impact on women. In recent months, many prominent women, including famous policewoman Malalai Kakar, have been brutally murdered in public by assassins on behalf of the Taliban. Shortly after Ms. Achakzai's killing, Qari Yousef Ahmedi, a spokesman for the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack. Ms. Achakzai's husband, a German chemistry professor who has been teaching at Kandahar University, confirmed his wife's death to friends and fellow councillors.
In a sad twist of fate, the couple, growing weary of dangers in Kandahar, had just purchased tickets for a May 1 trip to Toronto, where Ms. Achakzai's ailing mother lives.
"They both said they were tired of this place because it's so violent and so messed up. They were just taking a trip to get away, but they were going to see after the elections if things were going to get better," Ms. Achakzai's friend said. "Now she's gone forever."
In her short absence, hope for a renaissance in Kandahar has severely dimmed. "Obviously, we've had a brain drain. ... Now when we're slowly trying to think for the future of the country ...this is how our country repays people," Ms. Achakzai's friend said. "I have no faith in my government. I have no faith in the Taliban. I have no faith in the international community."