Mina Alimi never left Kabul – not during the wars she was born in, not during the first Taliban government when she was just a little girl, and not even last year when the Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban seized her hometown.
Even as her friends and colleagues fled fearing the new regime, Alimi, one of only 270 female judges in the country, chose to stay back despite the threats against her. Her name has been changed to protect her identity as she remains at risk.
“I had many opportunities to leave Afghanistan, but it meant leaving behind my elderly parents, in-laws and siblings who had supported me every step of the way. They were at just as much risk as I was because of my profession. How could I just leave them at the mercy of the Taliban and the criminals they released?” Alimi told Al Jazeera.
Threats and even armed attacks were not uncommon in her line of work. In the year preceding the takeover, several female judges were targeted in assassination attempts in Afghanistan, resulting in the killing of Judges Qadria Yasini and Zakia Herawi.
Alimi, too, had been receiving threats from the Taliban and other armed groups in Afghanistan – threats she ignored owing to her steadfast faith in the rule of law that she had spent years upholding.
‘They are looking for me’
However, when the Taliban marched into Afghan cities as part of their stunning takeover of the country last August, they began releasing prisoners from Afghan jails, some of them criminals whom Alimi had helped put in.
“I worked in the criminal division court and was part of hearings that convicted many Taliban fighters and other criminals. My name is a part of official verdicts that put many dangerous insurgents behind bars, and they have been looking for me since they were released,” she said, adding that the threats forced her and her family to go in hiding.
“I can’t even imagine what would they would do to me but I am terrified of what they will do to my family,” she said.
Afghanistan saw an exodus of nearly half a million people in the year since the Taliban takeover. The United Nations said 2.6 million Afghan asylum seekers were registered with them at the end of 2021.
While Alimi stayed behind to protect her family, others did so with the hopes of rebuilding their lives now that the war was over.
A 52-year-old university professor who only wished to be identified as Marzia says she stayed back for her students, especially the women she was training with the hopes that they would lead a new Afghanistan.
“I had a lot of hopes for the next generation, the youth we were training who would take Afghanistan places,” Marzia said.
She said she felt a strong sense of loyalty towards the country.
“When the Taliban came, I had a few opportunities to leave, and many of my colleagues did leave because of the threats they faced for our work together, but I chose to stay. This country invested so much in me. I got to grow, educate and work here. I can’t just leave everything behind,” she told Al Jazeera.
‘Situation is miserable’
Having spent the past year living under the Taliban regime, the two women expressed tremendous disappointment.
Marzia had hoped that despite the collapse of the Afghan government and its economy, the end of the war would mean the end of violence and bloodshed, providing some stability to Afghans to rebuild.
“But the situation is miserable,” Marzia said.
The professor said her family has been hit hard by the economic crisis and is struggling to make ends meet.
“People are starving and the Taliban instead stop me for the clothes I wear or if I don’t have a mahram [male guardian] while travelling. It’s infuriating,” she said.
She said she has been instructed by her university’s management to remove students from classrooms if they wear bright colours. “How is this governance?” she asked.
Alimi also laments the absence of women from the judiciary in Afghanistan.
“There were over 200 of us and we inspired confidence in Afghan women to approach the justice system. We oversaw so many cases of violence against women, domestic and family issues that a man would not be able to deal with because, in a conservative society like Afghanistan, the women would just not feel safe approaching male judges,” she said.
Despite being currently hunted by those she had convicted, Alimi does not regret her decision to stay with her family. However, as a mother to a young girl, she is deeply concerned about her future.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about my daughter’s future. Girls are no longer allowed to finish their education, they can’t study beyond sixth grade. I see a dark future for her and there is no mother who will accept such a fate for her child,” she said.
Marzia agreed. “We [Afghan women] had made so many gains in the last two decades through hard work and sacrifice and we lost it all. I had believed them [Taliban] and hoped they had changed. I shouldn’t have trusted them,” she said, recalling the years the Taliban was last in power in the 1990s.
“Even then they closed [girls’] schools. I studied in underground schools, hiding my books. After they were overthrown, I worked extremely hard to get where I am today and just look at where we are. I should have known better,” she added.
“No, I don’t regret staying. I am just very disappointed. I would never forgive myself if I left these young women behind.”