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From Kabul to Washington, One Woman's Journey

This month Voice of America's Pashto service, which broadcasts to Afghanistan, marked its 20th anniversary on the air. Spozhmai Maiwandi, a founding member of the service who later became its chief, talks about her life in Kabul, and about coming to the Voice of America in Washington.

Spozhmai Maiwandi arrived in the United States to begin working in VOA's Pashto service on July 4, 1982, Independence Day in America, and the day the service began its broadcasts to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. She says the decision to leave Kabul was not an easy one.

"The first difficulty was to leave my parents back there. My father was ill, and when I went to say good-bye to him do you know what he told me? He told me, 'Spozhmai, if you were going to America in search of economic prosperity, I would have told you not to go. But you're going there for a very sacred mission, that is to let the people of Afghanistan know, in their own language, that other than communism, another system, another way of life exists, and that's democracy.'"

Soviet forces had been in Afghanistan for two years at the time Spozhmai Maiwandi and her family escaped to Pakistan on their way to America. Ms Maiwandi says life under the Soviets was very difficult, with constant fear, intimidation, and surveillance.

"At night, we would sleep, there would be screaming, shouting and shooting. I would think as if it were my next-door neighbor, it would be on the same street," she recalled. "In the morning we would turn on the radio to find out what's going on, and there would be music and the radio would say that oh, people are so happy, in such and such an area there was a big party welcoming the Soviet forces. And when we asked our neighbors, nobody would dare speak about it."

Before the Soviet troops arrived to install a communist regime in Afghanistan, the country had been ruled by Zahir Shah, the now elderly king who is backing the present transitional government in Kabul. Spozhmai Maiwandi says that although Afghan society as a whole was tribal and tradition-bound, life in Kabul was not that different from life in other capitals in the world.

"Kabul was quite liberal. You could get an education. I would be dressed in European clothes," she said. "The women were beautiful; they were free. Especially if they were a little bit wealthy, they had everything available to them. Government had, I would say, if not 50 at least 40 percent of the workers were women. Doctors were women, teachers were women, we had women in the Cabinet, in the Parliament."

Spozhmai Maiwandi herself graduated from Kabul University with a degree in English. She was working in the American Embassy when she was invited to take the test to apply for the Voice of America's Pashto service, which was then being organized.

"Within a month they came back and said, 'You've passed with flying colors'. Believe it or not, at that time I didn't know what "flying colors" meant, but from the expression on the face of the ambassador I knew that it must be not bad. As soon as he left the room I opened the dictionary and looked up what this 'flying colors' means, and that made me very happy. And that's how I ended up here."

The Maiwandi family - Spozhmai, her husband and two children, aged six and seven - left Afghanistan separately, disguised as villagers. Spozhmai and her daughter reached the border with Pakistan on foot, escorted through the arid mountains by smugglers.

"The smuggler went to this last post, where there were Afghan and Soviet soldiers, and he said, 'She's my sister-in-law, she's sick;' and I was of course covered in the burkha, the very famous burkha that during the Taleban - how shall I say it, the whole world found out about it," she said. "That one actually saved my life, and saved the lives of many, many, many men and women during the Soviet invasion, because they would wear that, and that's how they would be smuggled, and nobody would recognize them, who they are."

At the Voice of America, Spozhmai worked initially as a broadcaster, announcer and editor. She learned every aspect of the radio business, translating news from English into Pashto, writing radio scripts, serving as program producer, hosting airshows.

In 1991 Spozmai Maiwandi was selected to be the chief of the Pashto service. Not only was she younger than most of the members of her staff, but some of the men had been her professors back in Kabul. "When I first came I had lots of difficulty," she recalled. "The service did not want me as a service chief. And so they went and complained, and somebody from Personnel sat and talked with them, 'What is the problem? Is she not qualified? Is she not good for the job? What is the problem with her?' And one of these editors said, 'No, she's qualified, she's very good. But you don't know. She's a woman.'" Most of the members of her staff were male, and most of them were older than she. They also all came from a traditional, male-dominated culture. Spozhmai Maiwandi became chief of VOA's Pashto Service in 1991.

"After every program we would have a meeting, after the air show, a self-critique kind, to see what went wrong and what went well and how we could improve the sound and also the content of the broadcast," she explained. "So in one such meeting I said, 'well, I think if we had done that this way it would have been much better.' And all of a sudden one of the editors became extremely angry, and he said, 'you should not be saying that', and I said, 'why not, this is what I think', and he said 'because I'm older than you, you're like my daughter, and you're not supposed to tell me how to do things'. So you can imagine."

Although her first years as head of the service were quite difficult, Spozhmai Maiwandi says she eventually won the respect and support of every member of her staff. "Through being fair. Through being good. Through not being bossy," she said. "I never sat in my office, as a chief of the service. I was always with them. Whoever was late in doing something, I would pick up and help. So I think they saw that I was not there to hurt them in any way, I was there to help them, so jointly we could have the best product, the best broadcast for the people of Afghanistan."

Pashto is the language spoken by the Pashtuns in Afghanistan, including the Taleban. Spozhmai Maiwandi says the primary aim of the Pashto broadcasts was to provide listeners with objective information that was not available to them from any other source.

"What America wanted first of all was to give the people news, good or bad, but balanced, reliable, correct news. That was one thing," she said. "And then of course we were talking to them about democracy. To let them know, through our programs, through our news, through our features, through our interviews, [about] the different parts of democracy. That's what we did. And introduce them to American society and American life."

During the 10 years that she was the Pastho service chief, Spozhmai Maiwandi says she was particularly interested in reaching the women of Afghanistan.

"And the way we did that is all along, we had a woman's program. And we were interviewing women on all kinds of issues, not only political issues, [but also] social issues, issues of health, on their problems," she said. "And we tried to reach the refugee community, that we thought it's good to air their voice and their problems."

Spozhmai Maiwandi says that with the coming of the Taleban to power in Kabul in 1996, VOA's Pashto-language programs focused on another theme, as well.

"We had more programming on human rights, because of their very drastic decrees against women, and not only against women, against men, too, the forced beards, and all those other things, forcing people to go to pray," she said. "So our emphasis was more on human rights, on what human freedom is, on things like that."

Ms. Maiwandi says that the service established contacts with Taleban leaders so it could get their reaction to events or stories. It was because of these contacts that Spozhmai was able to interview Mullah Omar, leader of the Taleban, ten days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The twelve-minute interview dealt with terrorism and Osama Bin Laden and the reasons Mullah Omar refused to turn Bin Laden over to international justice. It caused quite a controversy.

"Within hours we found out that the Department of State was strongly objecting to this interview and for it being aired," she said. "They said Mullah Omar is our enemy, he's a terrorist, and he should not be on the air. I believe that's what they said. And then of course everybody was very unhappy about that, because for years and years we are told that we have to have balanced programming, every view on every topic, and this was the other side of the topic."

Despite the State Department's objections, three days later Voice of America broadcast a report with excerpts from Spozhmai Maiwandi's interview with Mullah Omar, as well as quotes from President Bush and a Western expert on Islam. "The interesting thing for me was how much attention did it get from the media outside VOA," she said. "With one or two exceptions, I would say, there was an overwhelming support for this interview that we had done, that it should go on air. One of the concerns that everybody has is that this war on terrorism might curb the civil liberties, the freedom of the press, and we don't want that to happen."

Looking back on her career with the Voice of America's Pashto service, Spozhmai Maiwandi says she is proud to have faced and overcome many challenges. But her greatest satisfaction, she said, is the respect of the listeners in Afghanistan.

"My biggest satisfaction is, I have a clear conscience, I did a very good job, my listeners are proof to that," she said. "Anywhere I call in Afghanistan, the moment I say, "Salaam Aleikum", they say, "Oh, Spozhmai from Voice of America!"

Spozhmai Maiwandi now has a new job. She is currently the Afghanistan Program Coordinator of the South and Central Asia Division of the Voice of America.