Pakistan's first woman photojournalist: inspired by the husband she lost to war
Reuters photographer Aziz Ullah Haidari, who was killed in a Taliban ambush in 2001. Image: Saadia Sehar
On 19 November 2001 I received a call from the Reuters Pakistan bureau telling me to pray for my husband, Afghan photographerAziz Ullah Haidari. He was killed when a convoy of journalists was ambushed in Afghanistan.
I remember the wife of my husband’s colleague standing in front of me telling me, "Be strong Saadia", "Hold yourself". Those words broke me inside.
I was married on 28 January 1996 after a four-year love affair. We faced many problems from our families; they were against our marriage because we came from different cultures and countries. My parents thought Aziz would sell me because he is Afghan, and that he wouldn’t be a good husband. It was the first experience our family had had of intercultural marriage.
Aziz had joined Reuters in November 1991 as a correspondent and photographer. We met for the first time in a private academy where we both taught.
He was smart and handsome, still I had no intention of marrying him. But over time, he became a good friend and we fell in love. Within a year of marriage I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, and three years later an equally precious son.
I quit my job and settled happily into life looking after our family and home, which was everything to me.
In 2001 Aziz went to London for three weeks hostile training for media on the frontline. When he returned, Reuters suddenly assigned him to Afghanistan in anticipation of a US attack. I was so relieved when it was cancelled; we returned from Turkham, a town on the Pakistani-Afghan border.
But just a month later the US did attack and took the Afghan capital Kabul, and my husband prepared along with his journalist friends from all over Pakistan to go to war.
Going to war
I was terrified for him. I knew that there was no safe place where they were going, for him or anyone else. I tried to talk him out of accepting the assignment, but his bureau chief threatened to sack him unless he agreed to go. He left with a heavy heart.
Before he went, he looked unusually tired and my intuition indicated that something bad was going to happen.
He left Pakistan on 17 November 2001 and arrived in the Jalalabad province of Afghanistan the following day. Journalists across the world were gathered in the same hotel where my husband was staying with his friends and colleagues. They planned to go to Tora Bora but fighting between NATO and the Taliban had already begun there.
They changed their plan and travelled towards Kabul. On the morning of 19 November 2001, a 28-car convoy of journalists moved out from Jalalabad to Kabul, a distance of 67 miles.
After two hours the convey slowed through Aba-e- tung Rashum, a narrow pass where only one car could pass as a time and blind turns made the road treacherous.
Suddenly the three cars heading the convoy, isolated from the others behind them by the narrow road, were stopped by eleven armed men recognisable as Taliban despite their faces being covered with turbans.
Three years later in court, Raza Khan, a man later convicted as one of the murderers, described the terrible order of events that followed.19 November 2001
My husband and three other foreign journalists – one Spanish man, one Australian and one female Italian – were ambushed.
The Taliban commander, disturbed by the Spanish man’s shouting, first ordered Raza Khan to shoot him on the spot. My husband begged in his own language for mercy, to no avail.
The female journalist was raped and had her legs broken before she too was killed; all four were physically tortured prior to death. My husband was singled out as the only Muslim in the group, before being killed by the commander.
Khan was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The murderers turned out to be a group working for the Taliban.
When I found out the news, I ran to my parents’ house with my children, crying. My father opened the door and fell down with a heart attack on hearing the news. We were utterly broken by it.
I was so angry at the Taliban for killing these people like animals. I thought after my husband’s death that I wouldn’t be able to live without him.
I didn’t talk about it to my children, I never did. Eight years on though, they know now that their father was martyred.
Reuters offered me a job in their office and I joined them because I used to visit there to see my husband – it allowed me to feel close to him. I felt that he was with me and would be coming back soon.
After starting my journalism career at Reuters, I demanded that they give me my husband’s old position. They refused, saying senior Pakistani photographers were never women. They told me I would not be able to go in the field or write a story, and said I should stay at home instead.
The first female photojournalist in Pakistan
After one and half years I quit and joined Visual News as a reporter and photojournalist, a role I eventually held for six years. The boss of this association was my husband’s friend, who had supported my professional development.
I accepted this profession for my beloved Aziz. I wanted to fulfill his mission and keep his name alive as long as I live.
Saadia Sehar filming. Image: Saadia Sehar.
I was in fact a good photographer before, a skill inherited from my uncles and grandfather – M. Bhatti, a famous Pakistani photographer himself. But by taking up this role, I became Pakistan’s first employed female photojournalist.
Of course, I got a lot of criticism from male colleagues and still do to this day, but I accept the challenges for my husband.
As part of my job I travel a lot all over the country; my parents kindly look after my children whenever I am away. I finished my masters in mass communication and am now a successful journalist, feature writer and video journalist as well as photographer, working for GEO Independent Media Corporation and Xinhua news agency.
My children are good and hardworking, and help me all the time despite my frequent absences from their lives. I think they know that I have sacrificed my life for them and their beloved father.
This article was first published by the European Journalism Centre. See the original post here.