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'We Have No Guarantees': One Vermonter's Effort To Help Women Judges Flee Afghanistan

vermont-to-kabul-courtesy-patricia-whalen.jpg
Patricia Whalen, Courtesy
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During a 2006 visit here by several women in the Vermont Afghan Women Judges Judicial Education Project, a signpost shows the distance to the Afghanistan capital of Kabul.

The U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan has collapsed, and the Taliban have taken control of the capital city Kabul. The U.S. had been planning for a complete withdrawal by September, but now the U.S. and its allies are scrambling to evacuate personnel as a humanitarian crisis unfolds.

Patricia Whalen is a retired Vermont family court magistrate who served as an international judge in the war crimes chamber in Sarajevo. She was also the director of the Vermont Afghan Women Judges Judicial Education project, a cross-cultural program that hosted dozens of Afghanistan's female judges in Vermont from 2004 and 2014. 

Now Whalen is now trying to help some of those judges flee to safety.

VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Patricia Whalen. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: The threats to these women judges was immense, even before the Taliban swept through the country and essentially regained control in these last few days. What is the latest that you've heard from some of these women judges? What's their situation right now?

Patricia Whalen: Currently, the majority of them — and there are approximately 250 women judges in Afghanistan — are now in hiding. They are hoping and praying to be airlifted out.

They are burning their books, they are burning identification cards, they are burning decisions that they have written that are in their homes. Anything that can actually identify their connection to the United States is being destroyed.

"They are burning their books, they are burning identification cards, they are burning decisions that they have written that are in their homes. Anything that can actually identify their connection to the United States is being destroyed."
Patricia Whalen

Patricia, you brought dozens of these women to train and study in Vermont ... between 2004 and 2014. I'm sure some relationships were established. There are a lot of women, obviously, that you would love to get out of that country. Can you highlight the story of at least one of those women judges, and why it's so important to get her out of Afghanistan?

[One judge] was the first judge who came to Vermont. And she is currently in hiding. She's in her 60s, she's not married. Yet she has responsibility for the children of two of her deceased brothers. One brother was a doctor, who was assassinated in June by the Taliban.

She has sat on anti-corruption courts, has been nominated to the Afghan Supreme Court. She's a very brave woman. And up until a week ago, she did not want to leave Afghanistan, but the situation now is just untenable.

One of the most significant problems is the release of prisoners. Some of these are just really hardened criminals. They're people that these judges have convicted, put in prison. And some have received death threats just simply for presiding over a divorce. And they told the judges, they're coming for them.

A photo showing two people in a car
Patricia Whalen, Courtesy
Patricia Whalen, left, teaches Judge Sefeya how to drive during a 2006 visit through the Vermont Afghan Women Judges Judicial Education Project. Judge Sefeya has since died.

So they're facing threats on two fronts, in that sense. I'm glad you mentioned that judge, because I want to play some tape for you if I can, Patricia. This is what President Joe Biden had to say about the operation. You know, he's gotten a lot of criticism from the way, the execution of the U.S. forces pulling out. This is what he had to say about some of the people being left behind:

President Joe Biden: "I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghans, civilians sooner. Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country. And part of it because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.”

By your estimate, is that true? Did the female judges that you're working with decline opportunities to leave the country earlier, out of a sense of hope, maybe, that the country could resist the Taliban?

They absolutely had no way to leave the country earlier. They have been denied visas. I do think it's true that some of them did not want to leave. They have staked their life in a country they love dearly.

The only reason why they're leaving now is because they understand to stay is to die. And you know, as to Biden's decision, I don't disagree — like many Americans — that perhaps Biden needed to find an end game. But this is a humanitarian crisis, and we can analyze blame later, but for now, we have to do what we can to assist them.

"They absolutely had no way to leave the country earlier. They have been denied visas."
Patricia Whalen

Some of these women who have been out of the country have been to Vermont, as we said, and there have been some strong connections created from their time in Vermont. What can you tell us about that?

When we started this project, we just really had a profound belief that we could sit around a kitchen table and share our experiences, and we would find common ground. And that's exactly what we did.

You know, what amazed these women was not our dishwashers, or our refrigerators, or huge widescreen TVs. What they were interested in was our relationships.

For us who had male partners, they watched them caretake children, they watched them cook. They watched us just having discussions in our homes about who was going to pick up the kids after school that day. They watched women being treated here with respect.

In the Vermont Judiciary, it was the first time male judges actually treated them with respect. And when they saw that that could be achieved somewhere in the world, it gave them hope.

Even watching Vermonters get together to bring food together, for a potluck, was something that had a profound impact, isn't that true?

Absolutely. We had these big dinners... every night, and we did them as potlucks. And they told us that that was a problem that prevented them from getting together. The type of hospitality [in Afghanistan], it was imperative that they would feed anyone who came to their home, and they just simply couldn't afford it.

And I said, that's true here for us as well. So they talked about how they could have meetings, and one woman could bring the sugar, one woman could bring the tea. When I went there, in 2007, the first thing I was brought to was this meal at a judge's home, and it was a “Vermont potluck,” they told me, and that phrase had stuck there.

Are you able to communicate with any of these women right now? Because there's so much chaos going on right now. We're still in the early days of this takeover.

There's absolutely chaos going on. And the judges are moving from different places every night.

But I am communicating with them through a secure phone app. I'm getting calls and messages every minute of the day, we're receiving them.

"We have no guarantees. No one has said yet, 'Yes, they have a seat on a plane.' But we are trying every single avenue."
Patricia Whalen

Are you hopeful that you can get any of these women out to safety?

I just can't bear the thought that we can't get them out. We're working with people in the government, to send them lists of the judges. We're working with private groups that are arranging charter air flights, if they can get permission to use the military airport to land.

But we have no guarantees. No one has said yet, “Yes, they have a seat on a plane.” But we are trying every single avenue. There's a committee of international judges that are working on this. We are simply begging for them to get out.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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