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New Details Emerge Regarding Death Of Afghan Health Worker

An Afghan health worker drops polio vaccine into the mouth of a child during a vaccination campaign in Kabul in 2009. It's still unclear whether a young woman shot dead in eastern Afghanistan recently was working on such a campaign and, if so, if that is why she was killed.
When a young Afghan health worker was shot dead last week by armed men in eastern Afghanistan, suspicion immediately fell on the Taliban.

After all, the hard-line Islamist group has a history of violence against women. And is it no secret that some within the Taliban strongly oppose the type of polio immunization the health worker, identified only as Anisa, was working on when she was slain.

An ongoing investigation into the December 1 killing in the eastern Kapisa Province, however, has uncovered new details that offer a broader range of motives and possible suspects.

After Afghan President Hamid Karzai dispatched a commission of five high-ranking government officials from Kabul on December 7 to probe her death, investigators now say Taliban involvement is just one of several leads they are pursuing.

Kapisa Province Governor Mehrabuddin Safi has said investigations have yet to determine any Taliban involvement in the killing of Anisa, who died when two armed men on motorcycles shot her at least six times in the abdomen. She was rushed to the hospital in her hometown of Kohistan, but died several hours later from excessive bleeding.

Safi believes that Anisa may have been caught in the crossfire of a gunfight between the two unidentified men. Safi also rejects reports by local officials and comments from her family that say the 20-year-old was a health worker for a polio-vaccination program. He says Anisa, who had only recently completed the 10th grade, aspired to join the campaign but had not yet done so.

"So far our investigation has shown that the incident was a criminal action and not a politically motivated incident [carried out by the Taliban]," Safi says. "But our investigation into this is still ongoing."

Safi says security forces have arrested three people in connection with Anisa's death, but did not reveal the names or the affiliations of the individuals.

Breaking From Traditional Role

No organization or individual has yet claimed responsibility for her death, and the newest information does not discard the possibility that the Taliban was responsible or that her death was no accident.

The day before her death, Anisa survived another attempt on her life when unidentified gunmen opened fire on her as she returned home from school.

According to Afghan media reports Anisa, who survived the attack by hiding in a neighbor's house, received several threatening phone calls in the days prior to her death warning her to cease her work.

Abdul Ahmad, Anisa's brother, says investigators are currently looking into whether Anisa's death stemmed from a domestic dispute related to her decision to go to school and work outside the home, which is still rare in many parts of Afghanistan. Ahmad says police, who did not say if he was a suspect, have already questioned him several times.

Ahmad rejects the possibility, insisting that the family strongly supported Anisa's decision to go to school and to work for the local health department's polio-eradication program, which saw her travel to distant villages to oversee vaccinations.

"Because our family was poor, Anisa took work as a polio-vaccination worker. She was carrying out vaccinations while studying at the same time," Ahmad says, noting that when she was killed "she was going to the office to get vaccines to do her work. She had just finished her school exams."

Dangerous Work

Anisa was reportedly working on a polio-immunization program funded by the United Nations, which along with the World Health Organization takes a leading role in working to eliminate the crippling and deadly disease.

Polio is spread when people eat food or drink water contaminated by feces. Afghanistan is one of just three countries (Pakistan and Nigeria are the others) where polio is endemic, according to the United Nations.

Taliban factions, particularly inside Pakistan, have condemned the UN immunization drive and their threats of violence have stopped programs in Taliban-controlled areas in Pakistan's northwest and even some border areas inside Afghanistan.

Anisa's death comes after the Women's Affairs Ministry announced last month that cases of "extreme or brutal violence" against women increased this year. The ministry reported some 3,500 cases of violence against women in the first six months of this year.

The growing number of cases of violence against women prompted a demonstration in Kabul on December 10, the International Day of Human Rights. Dozens of female activists demanded an end to violence against women and called on the authorities to apprehend those responsible for Anisa's killing.

According to a statement from President Karzai's office, the commission is expected to report to him within the coming days on the circumstances of Anisa's death.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.