Compelling. Shocking. Disappointing.
That’s the takeaway from a Judicial Division cosponsored special program on around-the-clock efforts to support evacuation from Afghanistan of American citizens, those who worked with and besides U.S. forces and as many as 250 Afghani women judges.
Retired Vermont Judge Patricia Whalen, who served as an international judge in the War Crimes Chamber of Bosnia and Herzegovina and was part of efforts to host Afghanistan’s women judges in her home state, offered a gripping account:
“It is quiet. I am sitting at the dining table at our camp and I just realized it is dark. I have lost the sense of day and time. I have our 24-hour Zoom running in the background. All seven judges and one interpreter are busy working on some aspect of potential evacuation. We are all on mute except for one, a judge in New Zealand, and I hear her typing and the rustling of her body in the chair. She has been up for 26 hours. I am working on getting a four-year-old diabetic girl in Kabul her insulin. To do this I am dealing with people in four countries in four different time zones. My world clock on my phone is a constant companion.
“In a world driven by sane civilized rules, in a world I used to know, I would never be the person doing this. In the last 30 days I have increased my personal toolbox of skills, into areas I never dreamed of or even cared to be in. These are the facts: the American government created a humanitarian crisis that they themselves cannot control. It has thrown government agencies into chaos. While we continue to push for government assistance, with the help of a few dedicated government public servants, we are left essentially on our own. We are not alone in this vacuum. Many civil society groups are facing the same frustrating issues we face. Some groups are better connected and financed than ours, others grabbed risky opportunities that we did not. Many were lucky and in the right place at the right time to get their people out. Many, like our [International Association of Women Judges] group, are still desperately seeking a way out. Our small successes were dependent on cooperation from governments not our own. That is a fact I will never forget.
“So where are we now? Our working group consists of seven judges (worn out tired friends) and two exhausted dedicated interpreters. We are still running a 24 hour Zoom. We have support from other judges in our network from around the world. Our work has changed. We are no longer heartbeat to heartbeat walking with our judges as they made countless attempts to get through Taliban checkpoints to try to make it through the sewer to the gate of the airport. Those days already seem like an old nightmare. Now we are working with lists, verifying data, vetting every source of potential rescue, raising money, looking for visas from every country that cares, negotiating with governments for assistance, trying to keep the issue alive in the press, finding lawyers to represent those that are out and looking at how we can sustain this for what may be a long haul. All of this is done while the interpreters stay in contact with the women, answering the endless question that cannot be answered: When can we get them out?
“We do not know. We are cooperating with groups that hope to be able to evacuate. The security picture changes by the hour. Plans are made. Plans are scrapped. The behind-the-scenes people who are helping us all deserve medals and recognition. Someday we hope to thank them appropriately.
“What can you do?
“Continue to call the White House and Congress. They must find a solution to help the judges and other at-risk Afghans. The women judges are particularly vulnerable. They have been ordered not to leave the country. The Taliban is hunting them and they are in hiding. They also are at risk from the criminals and terrorists they imprisoned. Prisoners are now loose and seeking revenge. Keep their name and cause foremost in newspapers and in Congress. Tell them to support Sen. Leahy’s Welcome Act which provides benefits across the board for all types of refugees including humanitarian parole recipients. Ask Congress to straighten out the visa debacle and give the judges who are now in transit in other countries a way to enter the U.S.
“Donate to the International Association of Women Judges Afghan Relief Fund which supports our 24-hour LIFELINE and the work of our committee. Never forget how important you are to helping these women. Think of who you know in government – no matter how high or low, state or federal – raise the issue, call them, ask them what can they do.
“Speak to foundations. Do they have ways to assist or contacts to call? Do you have contacts in universities? Rotary? Quakers? Will they offer a scholarship to an English-speaking Afghan student who is in transit and needs a visa to come to the U.S. and study? Right now, I have four university students and three seniors in high school that need these opportunities.
“I have been remiss in thanking all who have been helping. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed and we are deeply grateful. For now, the immediate task is to get these women out. They can only hide for so long. We must get them out and then find a place for them to go.”