When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, hundreds of judges went into hiding: the Taliban had opened jails across the country, freeing the very men they had imprisoned.
Twenty six of those women they escaped to Greece and the BBC traveled there to meet them. For your safety, their names have been changeds.
Around midnight, the phone rang. With the pickup location confirmed, it was time to go.
Dressed in a full-length black chador, Judge Sana went out into the street, her two young children by her side. Each carried a single bag, which contained two sets of clothes, a passport, telephone, cash, and whatever food they could take for the journey ahead.
“When we left we didn’t know where we were going,” recalls Sana. “They told us there would be safety risks along the way, but we accepted them all because we knew this was the only way out.”
A car came to pick her up and her children. As she climbed, Sana looked back at the city where she was born, raised, and started her own family.
Their survival was now in the hands of outsiders coordinating an evacuation effort. He had no idea where they were going, but he knew they couldn’t stay.
“It was the worst moment of my life, when I looked at my children as we were leaving,” he says. “I was so desperate. I was wondering if I would ever get them out of Afghanistan alive.”
During the last three months, says Sana, it has been hunted by the same men she sent to prison for violent crimes against women.
The Taliban opened prisons as they moved across the country, releasing thousands of criminals to take revenge on those who imprisoned them.
“I worked in a court that dealt with many different crimes, including murder, suicide, rape and other complex crimes. The punishments I handed down were long and serious,” explains Sana.
“But after they were all released, each of them told us, ‘We will kill them if we find them.’
A recent BBC investigation found that more than 220 judges livedon hidden because they fear retaliation under the Taliban rule.
Speaking from secret locations within Afghanistan, many of these women said they received death threats daily.
In response to the allegations, Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi told the BBC: “Judges should live like any other family without fear. No one should threaten them. Our special military units are obliged to investigate such allegations and act if there is a violation. “
Karimi also repeated the Taliban’s promise of a “blanket amnesty” for all former government workers in Afghanistan.
But Sana describes the last few months as a “living nightmare.”
“We changed location every two or three days, going from the street to shelters and hotels,” he says.
“We couldn’t go back. Our own house had already been raided.”
After leaving the pickup point, Sana and her family continued the next leg of their overland journey. They traveled through the desert for more than 10 hours, he says, never sleeping.
About every half hour they would arrive at a Taliban checkpoint, where armed men were inspecting travelers.
Sana cradled her youngest son in her arms the entire way. I thought they wouldn’t make it out alive.
“If they knew that I was a judge, they would have killed us immediately,” she says, breaking into tears. Sana had handed down sentences in cases in which women had committed suicide due to their husband’s abuse.
“I always used to think, at what point does a woman choose death? But when I started to lose hope, I got to this point. I was ready to kill myself“.
After crossing the desert, Sana and her children spent more than a week in a shelter, until they were finally taken to an airstrip.
When the plane took off, the entire cabin burst into tears, he says. They were out.
After arriving in Athens, the 26 judges and their families underwent COVID-19 tests before being taken to various apartments in the city.
Under a temporary visa scheme, the Greek authorities, together with various charities, guaranteed the judges food and accommodation for 14 days.
It is not known what would happen after two weeks. The judges were advised to begin apply for asylum in a third country.
Among those who sought refuge in the United Kingdom was Asma. With more than 25 years of experience as a judge in Afghanistan, this was not the first time she had fled the Taliban.
In 1996, when the group seized power from the retreating Soviet army, Asma and her family fled Afghanistan across the border.
“This is the second time we have experienced a Taliban takeover. I was a judge when they came to power,” explains Asma.
“Even then, the judges were the first to be expelled from society.”
With the arrival of US and NATO troops in 2001, Asma returned home and resumed her job as a judge. Until, two months ago, history began to repeat itself.
Sana also previously witnessed the rise of the Taliban. She had just graduated from law school when they came to power in the 1990s. For five years she was forced to stay home and quit her job, she says.
“Becoming a judge is a great struggle in itself,” she says.
“First you have to convince your own family to let you study. Then even when you go to college and get a job, you still have to prove yourself every step of the way.
“But in Afghanistan women judges are needed to understand the pain women suffer. Just as a doctor is needed to heal the sick, a judge understands the difficulties women face and can help solve inequality,” she adds.
“For women, there is even an embarrassment associated with reporting a crime. But families are more likely to support their female relatives if a judge is present.”
Those left behind
Walking into her small temporary apartment in Greece, Sana looks at her phone. She points to a photo of her family’s old home, a property that she proudly says was hers by law, not her husband’s.
After its evacuation, the house was seized by a high-ranking member of the Taliban, he says. He now lives at home, drives his car, owns all his belongings.
For the judges now living as part of the diaspora, the news from home is rarely positive.
In one of his many WhatsApp groups, he is sharing a montage of 28 profile photos. Each face, says a judge, is a former prosecutor allegedly murdered in the last 48 hours by criminals released from prison.
Of all the judges who came to Greece, it was the youngest who seemed the most devastated by what they had to leave behind.
Nargis, a junior judge, served for less than five years in a provincial family court before the arrival of the Taliban. His entire college and work career was developed under an Afghan government backed by the United States.
“As long as the Taliban are in power, it will be impossible for women to progress and keep everything they have achieved in the last 20 years,” says Nargis.
Among the older judges, those who had witnessed not only the rise but also the fall of the Taliban, there is more hope.
“The women of Afghanistan are not the women of 20 years ago,” says Asma. “Look at those women who protested the first days when the Taliban arrived, asking for their rights, asking for education.”
“Even reaching this stage has not been easy. But today all the daughters of our country are on their feet.”
Sana has also found her own hope. The laws that she and her fellow judges helped forge cannot simply be erased from history, she says. The Taliban can ignore them, but they cannot erase them.
Searchable and Shareable – A record of what was accomplished.
She quotes the Constitution. Article 22: All citizens of Afghanistan, men and women, have the same rights. Article 43: Education is a right of all citizens of Afghanistan. Article 48: Work is a right of all Afghans.
Sana had helped write the Law for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which was enacted into law in 2009 and transformed 22 acts of abuse against women into criminal offenses, including rape, assault, forced marriage, prohibiting women from acquiring property, and prohibiting a woman or girl from going to school or work.
For now, the Taliban have decreed that all working women and students must stay home and not go to school or work until all workplaces and learning environments are deemed “safe.”
They have said it is a temporary measure, but have not yet established a timeline of when the situation will change.
When asked if women would occupy prominent roles, such as judge or minister, in the future, Karimi told the BBC that she could not comment because “working conditions and opportunities for women are still being discussed.”
From her new temporary refuge in Greece, Sana believes that a painful injustice is being done in her country.
“At this time, women are the presss in their houses and the criminals that I locked up are free“, dice.
She promised that she would continue to fight that injustice, including from abroad, and “supporting all Afghan women.”
“Afghanistan does not belong to the Taliban or any specific group,” he stresses, “it belongs to all Afghans.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.