WASHINGTON – Pioneering journalist Spozhmai Maiwandi, who fled her home in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the 1980s and spent the next 30 years as a broadcaster and editor for Voice of America reporting on her home country from Washington, has died at the age of 68 in Bowie, Maryland.

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Her family announced her passing over the weekend. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday released a statement celebrating Maiwandi’s contributions to journalism and Afghanistan.

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Maiwandi and her two young children escaped Soviet-occupied Kabul, fleeing on foot over the border with Pakistan and joined VOA in 1982 as a founding member of VOA’s Pashto language news service. She later became the Pashto service chief and director of VOA’s South Asia division, before retiring in 2014.

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Throughout her VOA career, Maiwandi championed bringing news to the people of Afghanistan and standing up for Afghan women’s rights.

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In an essay for VOA about her path as a journalist, she recalled the conversation she had with her father as she weighed leaving him and her mother in Kabul to pursue her career.

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“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 is democracy.'”

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VOA news broadcasts were among the few sources of outside news available in Afghanistan during Taliban rule in the 1990s.

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As the United States prepared to go to war in Afghanistan following the 2001 terrorist attacks, Maiwandi interviewed Taliban leader Mullah Omar in what became his final interview with a Western news organization.

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Controversy erupted over the U.S.-funded broadcaster airing excerpts of the interview on the eve of war, in what became a defining moment for VOA’s editorial independence.

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Maiwandi’s years broadcasting to Afghanistan also shaped the next generation of Afghan reporters, said VOA Afghan service reporter Matiullah Abid Noor.

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“Spozhmai Maiwandi was famous among Afghan listeners as ‘Spozhmai jan.’ Journalists of our age learned reporting by following her style of coverage. She was really a torchbearer for a whole generation of journalists who run Afghan media nowadays,” said Noor.

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Other colleagues remember how she remained focused on the most vulnerable in Afghanistan and encouraged women, in particular, to set big goals in life and to envision a larger role for themselves in society.

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In her final VOA byline in 2014, she wrote an essay about the historical struggle for Afghan women to gain ground, despite the country’s conservative beliefs and customs.

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“In order for Afghan women to create a future where they are free to learn, to work, and to participate in all facets of daily life, Afghan women themselves, in the cities and also in the villages, need to collectively and actively participate in the evolution of their culture and traditions,” she said.

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VOA Afghan Service contributed to this report.

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