Inside her dining room in Washington on Saturday, Vanessa Ruiz — a senior judge in the D.C. Court of Appeals — logged on to a Zoom call with judges from around the world, all worried about the fate of their judicial counterparts in Afghanistan.
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the International Association of Women Judges said the U.S. government was not helpful in their efforts to get Afghan female judges out of Afghanistan. The government has provided some help. Also, an Afghan judge who was near the site of the bombing at the Kabul airport was with her niece, not her daughter. The article has been corrected.
With access to the Kabul airport mostly sealed off Saturday, several of the Afghan judges texted farewell messages to friends.
“If there is no help from you, I will just have to do . . . whatever life brings for me,” said one of the messages, sent by a judge who had tried multiple times with her three children to get through the crowds at the Kabul airport and whose identity was withheld by Ruiz and her colleagues out of concern for her safety. “I have to go home and let the Taliban come and get me.”
Ruiz and the other judges — part of the nonprofit International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) — burned with frustration.
The group has been trying for more than two weeks to evacuate the 250 Afghan female judges whom they consider to be symbols of what 20 years of war in Afghanistan was meant to accomplish: rule of law, an independent judiciary and the full participation of women in society.
But with the United States and other NATO alliance countries rushing to meet a Tuesday deadline to evacuate their own citizens and Afghans who worked for their governments, the country’s judges and prosecutors have mostly been forgotten, advocacy groups say.
“They embraced it,” Ruiz said of the female judges’ often dangerous role in their now-fallen government. “Now we’re just going to leave them there? When we know that they’re really in mortal danger? My God, we cannot do that.”
Since Thursday’s suicide bombing in Kabul killed 13 U.S. troops and at least 170 others, evacuations have dramatically slowed, to about 6,800 on Friday compared with 21,000 per day before the attack, U.S. officials said Saturday.
Ruiz and other IAWJ members have tried to pull government levers to help their Afghan colleagues — many of whom they trained in the effort to curb corruption in Afghanistan and westernize the country’s legal system.
Their 24-hour-a-day operation has had some success.
Working mostly with European governments, the group has helped nearly 20 Afghan female judges plus their families get to safety, arranging for visas and seats on planes through government officials.
U.S. officials have provided some help in their effort, the IAWJ group said.
Patricia Whalen, who worked as a family court magistrate in Vermont and an international criminal court judge in Sarajevo before retiring, said she felt a lack of early interest in the judges’ cause from the United States and several NATO alliance governments.
“It shouldn’t be up to us to get the women judges out of Afghanistan,” she said on the Zoom call. “We have essentially been left alone.”
The Biden administration has said it is working to evacuate as many at-risk Afghans as possible, including judges.
The judges have felt in constant danger since the Taliban reclaimed power this month.
The group’s fighters have opened the country’s prisons and jails — freeing some of those who were convicted of murder, drug trafficking and spousal abuse and sentenced by the female judges. Some of the ex-prisoners, as well as members of the Taliban, have sought out the judges, ransacking their homes, said the IAWJ judges, citing conversations with their Afghan colleagues.
Many of the judges have been hiding, mostly in Kabul, moving from house to house, advocates said. Since two of their colleagues were assassinated in January, the danger has become exponentially worse.
They’ve been communicating with their colleagues abroad through secured smartphone apps, asking how and when they and their families can get on a plane, the IAWJ group said.
Those able to get seats had to navigate the various Taliban checkpoints outside the airport, hoping their names — listed on airplane manifests that the guards carried — wouldn’t be recognized.
They’ve navigated through tear gas and the sound of Taliban guards firing their rifles into the air while keeping in contact with IAWJ handlers monitoring their movements through the jostling crowds with GPS trackers.
“We are in a very bad situation,” one Afghan judge told her handler on Aug. 18 while she and several other judges tried to spot an Eastern European soldier meant to escort them to safety, according to a transcript of the conversation provided by the group. “Lots of people pushing and the Taliban are hitting us.”
“Can you wait somewhere safer?” the IAWJ handler asked.
“We can go back to the parking [lot] if we do not miss the flight,” the Afghan judge replied.
Those judges and their families made it onto a plane.
But many others have been unable to get past the crowds, the group said.
None of the Afghan judges whom the IAWJ group knows about were close enough to the explosion to be harmed. The group received warnings about a pending attack from government contacts in Kabul and alerted the female judges to get away.
One high-ranking Afghan judge, who later made it onto a plane, said she was near the bombing site that day but left before the attack because her 12-year-old niece became ill from the tear gas.
“We are so happy that we went home that day,” the judge told The Washington Post through an interpreter. The judge spoke on the condition of anonymity because she still feared for her safety.
On Saturday, the IAWJ group’s Zoom call focused on protecting those still in the country.
The group was getting over the heartbreak of two more failed rescue attempts that occurred a day earlier, just before the Taliban mostly sealed off the airport’s entrances.
They discussed ways to get at least some of their colleagues out after U.S. and NATO troops leave Afghanistan Tuesday. But none of the options were firm. They suggested asking the Afghan judges to wipe their phones and limit communication with anyone outside the country, in case the Taliban or the Islamic State-Khorasan tapped their phones.
“It’s a crazy situation,” Ruiz said. “We’re helping them, but their ties to us puts them at risk.”
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