Global rescue effort tries to help Afghanistan’s female judges escape the Taliban regime

Following the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the country saw sweeping reforms, including in its courts, with the appointment of more than 250 female judges. But with the withdrawal of U.S. forces last August and the Taliban takeover, the jobs and lives of those female judges were put at risk. Christopher Booker reports on the efforts to help get them to safety in a new country.

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  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the country saw sweeping reforms, including in its courts, with the appointment of more than 250 female judges.

    But with the final withdrawal of U.S. forces last August, and the takeover of the Taliban, many reforms were reversed, putting the jobs and lives of these female judges at risk. Special correspondent Christopher Booker reports on the ongoing effort to help those judges get to safety in a new country.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The story behind this seemingly simple moment is a tale comprised of a remarkable set of circumstances. And for Judge Vida Qayoumi and her family it started with only an hour's notice.

  • Vida Qayoumi, Former Afghan Judge:

    We didn't ever think that the Taliban will come to capital of Afghanistan, Kabul, in just one day or two days on that Sunday, 15th August, we went to our office as usual, we were immediately pulled. We were being led to go from our jobs.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The dismissal of Judge Vida Qayoumi and her husband, Prosecutor Hama Yun was just the beginning of what would be a seven month journey.

  • Vida Qayoumi:

    We came home until we get the girls and just two backpacks. We knew enough about Taliban behavior to realize we could not stay there and we were into hiding for one month.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Judge Qayoumi and her family made it out of Afghanistan and landed in Doha, Qatar. From there, they went to a U.S. military base in New Jersey, where they would stay for four months, and now are in temporary housing in the suburbs of Washington DC.

    All this time later, the family is a portrait of what has been lost in the new Afghanistan. They're also a bright spot in this terrible story, part of a global rescue effort to find safe passage for Afghanistan's 250 female judges.

    In August of last year, NewsHour reported on the frantic effort to get the country's judges out of the country as the Taliban closed in.

    Judge Vanessa Ruiz, International Association of Women Judges: Everything that a woman judge is, is anathema to the Taliban ideology.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Judge Vanessa Ruiz is a senior judge on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. She is also a former president of IAWJ, the International Association of Women Judges, a coalition of 6,500 female judges from around the world. In 2003, the group started working in supporting female judges from Afghanistan.

  • Vanessa Ruiz:

    They represent everything that the Taliban do not want women to do, or to be. The last time the Taliban were in control in the 90s, when they took control back then, the judges were the first women that the Taliban went after to remove them from their positions.

  • Christopher Booker:

    On Thursday with the help of interpreter Farrah Arjan (ph), we spoke with three judges desperately trying to get out of Afghanistan. For their safety, we're not sharing their names, or showing their faces.

    Voice of Afghan Judge: So the Taliban knows about our whereabouts. They already have gathered all the information they need. So there's no way for us to hide, or there's no way for us to stay. And we have to find ways for us in our family to find safe places.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Is the only solution to leave?

    Voice of Afghan Judge: This is obvious. And you see what is going on that the Taliban is coming to Kabul. They are going to kill us but also our families and it is creating a lot of stress for us.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The three judges we spoke with in August were among the few who successfully escaped at the beginning. They're currently living in Poland.

  • Vanessa Ruiz:

    Since then, over a period of months, and in a very painstaking, difficult weather times harrowing experiences for the judges, we have been able to assist about 172 judges and their families to be evacuated.

  • Christopher Booker:

    The judges and their families have been scattered all over the globe. But the effort helped rescue nearly 1,000 Afghans, but there are still 79 judges in Afghanistan.

  • Vanessa Ruiz:

    The situation there is becoming more difficult. Every day there's more violence. There seems to be more violence directed against the judges and so we're very worried about them.

    They continue to be in hiding. The Taliban, as you know, has come down harder on women, generally, they cannot travel more than a certain distance without a male companion. They must be fully covered. And of course they can't work. They have received no compensation, any of these judges now for months and months and months.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Where does the U.S. government fit into your thinking? And has that changed?

  • Vanessa Ruiz:

    The U.S. government from our perspective was truly absent at the beginning of this whole saga. As far as a women judges are concerned, I think that has changed. And we are now quite hopeful that there will be a path for a number of the judges to come to the US. But the process is intensive, exhausting. And it takes time.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Is money the main concern constraint or is it bureaucracy logistics?

  • Vanessa Ruiz:

    It's all of the above.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Of the 172, judges the IAWJ help to escape Afghanistan, 12 have been permanently resettled in the United States.

    In addition to the loss of life, what has been lost in Afghanistan?

  • Vida Qayoumi:

    All of my kids are girls. And it will be a nightmare. And it will be a scary time for me to see that my girls will cannot attend this school after the age of 12. Of course, it's very hard to accept that. We lost everything that we had in less than one hour. But the greater pictures that we have lost the whole generation of female lawyers, judges, professionals, and academic of all kinds, we are the place that's not the place that they can live anymore because of the threat of Taliban.

  • Christopher Booker:

    For "PBS News Weekend, "I'm Christopher Booker.

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