It was dawn, a cold snowy morning in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Without fail, the mosque inside our compound begins the call to prayer. I got up, threw on my workout clothes and shuddered as the chilly air rushed in when I opened the door.
Heading to the compound’s gym, I thought about my tasks for the day. I had already been in Afghanistan several months: two of them in Kabul and the rest in Kunduz, a rural province in the north near Tajikistan.
I was a rule of law advisor for a U.S. Department of State-funded rule of law program. Its main goal was to help strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s criminal justice system through advising and training. Our program employed 60 American judges and lawyers who were sprinkled across the country. Since joining, I had taught legal seminars, advised and mentored Afghan judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and police officers.
As I entered the gym, loud music from a radio blared. Men, civilian and military, were already exercising. I was the only female living and working inside this compound of 750 inhabitants. They were American, German, Dutch, Russian, Croatian, Nepalese, Fijian, and Afghan. By now I was used to their huge muscles, tattoos, sweat smell, and music. They nodded to me. I nodded back.
At 8 a.m. I was in my office which was a 10 ft. x 12 ft. x 8 ft. rectangular trailer. Abdul Mohammed, our bilingual secretary, greeted me. He was already putting together the schedule for our legal seminars next week. I asked him to call the Kunduz court and inquire what trials were on the calendar that day.
Reviewing the information Abdul gave me, I made my decision and planned to observe a theft trial that morning.
Due to security issues, we did not disclose our intended appointments to our Afghan employees until departure. Shortly after 9:30 a.m., I gathered my Afghan interpreter, legal expert, and driver, informing them we would be heading to the court house. A mixed group of local and foreign security officers would accompany us.
Returning to my room, which was also a 10 ft. x 12 ft. x 8 ft. trailer, I looked in the mirror. I had just put on a bullet-proof vest, head scarf, and muddy boots — it had rained the day before. Adjusting my gear, I chuckled to myself remembering the dry clean only dresses and pearls I wore while practicing law in D.C. The contrast couldn’t be starker. As a former law firm associate, prosecutor, and criminal defense attorney, I never knew that law would bring me to this part of the world.
Boarding two armored vehicles, we had just been informed of a bombing that took place in town the night before. Instead of using the main road, we had to take an alternative one made up of dirt roads and back streets, adding an extra 40 minutes each way.
Bumping along endless pot holes, I remembered the smooth pavement of Pennsylvania Avenue leading up to the White House near where my office had been. There could not be two more different cities than Kunduz, Afghanistan and Washington, D.C. Yet the road to Kunduz was taking me to a place where I was helping to shape a country’s criminal justice system.
Arriving at the dilapidated court house, several of my security officers exited first. When they gave the signal, I stepped out. Together, with one officer in front and another behind me, we walked in box-like formation from the vehicle to the building’s front door.
We were immediately ushered into a judge’s chamber. I was surprised as I planned to enter the court room. Two judges greeted us. They said that none of the attorneys or parties would be present for the theft trial — transportation problems. Instead of a trial, we would observe a robbery case on appeal and the judges would render a decision based on the paperwork. My interest was piqued.
As we sat down, the judges sifted through sheets of paper in front of them. Before long, they announced their decision out loud in Dari. It was akin to Americans announcing a sale of property on the court house steps, except this was in the chamber with only our party listening. Questions raced across my mind. Though I was familiar with the requirements for a trial in the civil law system, I was a bit fuzzy on those for an appellate hearing. Moreover, what had become of the trial that did not take place?
Afterwards, the judges and I conversed. They confirmed what I had seen in Kabul and previously in Kunduz many times: the parties, witnesses, and their attorneys often failed to appear, even for a trial. The country was overrun by insurgents. Bombs exploded, roads were destroyed, and people got killed. The judges were afraid themselves but they did their best to adjudicate cases regularly. Many times hearings, trials, and various court appointments had to be postponed or cancelled. In a war zone, the unexpected was the norm.
We then spoke about due process, with me emphasizing the importance of it. In a country rife with conflict, violence and corruption, those without the protection of wealth or powerful connections were less likely to receive justice. Although the judges agreed with my words, their manner showed they struggled daily with the realities and politics of Afghan society.
If a judge in America was pressured to adjudicate a case a certain way but did not succumb, he could conceivably lose his job. A judge in Afghanistan under the same circumstances could lose his life.
The road ahead for rule of law was long, one that would involve more conflict, disagreement, death, negotiation, and ultimately, compromise.
Then my security guard signaled me. We could no longer linger due to security reasons.
Back at the compound with the bullet-proof vest and head scarf removed, I went to teach my course. It was a Constitutional Law seminar comparing and contrasting the U.S.’s and Afghanistan’s Constitutions. Our students, mostly men, were local judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and police officers. Today we diverged and talked about jury selection. The students were fascinated by the topic. Afghanistan, with its civil law system, did not use juries.
Standing in front of the room, I remembered my apprehension months earlier when I first taught in Kunduz. I was told no female American lawyer had taught a law course in the province. Though it would be difficult for me to be accepted initially by the male students, I decided to teach anyway. It was important to set the example of gender equality and female professional competence instead of merely having foreign men address these concepts with Afghan men.
At the end of class I asked if there were any questions. A male student asked, “Madame, we have been wondering all along. Did your husband give you permission to be here?” He based his question on the norms of his culture where the man rules.
“I don’t have a husband so this is a non-issue,” I answered.
Another student raised his hand.
“What how about your father?” the second student inquired. “Did he give you permission to be here?”
I explained that my father knew where I was but I did not need permission since I was above the age of discretion. The students seemed to accept this answer for me, a foreign woman, but were hesitant about this level of freedom when it came to their wives and daughters.
It was early evening by the time I re-entered my trailer. The call to prayer was happening again. There was an email. One of my friends, a sergeant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had been missing in Kabul for days. Today they found his body — there was evidence of torture.
Time stopped as anger, sadness, and fear set in.
There was a second email. Our rule of law team in Herat was making headway. Its seminars emphasizing gender justice were making a difference. Its students, Herat’s judges, lawyers and police officers, were applying the new Elimination of Violence Against Women law to their cases. This touched me. It made me proud.
Suddenly our compound’s electricity was cut off. I looked outside. The snow was falling and it was beautiful.