‘If you give someone $1000, he can kill anybody’: Why judge Nellab fled Kabul

For the first time in her 10-year legal career, she considered leaving her homeland, but decided against it, still hopeful the security situation would improve. Seven months later, with the Taliban back in power, that optimism had vanished when she came face-to-face with a rapist she’d sent to prison for 18 years. He was carrying an AK-47.

Nellab, one of about 270 female judges in Afghanistan at the time and five months pregnant with her third child, asked her superiors if she could travel to work in an armoured car. Instead, she was given a pistol and 13 bullets.

Zakia Herawi, whom Nellab had known since university, was one of two female judges killed in an attack.

Recalling the death, Nellab becomes so upset she needs a few moments to compose herself. “It was very shocking news for us. Everyone was so scared, we didn’t go to her funeral,” she recalls. “Killing those two ladies, it became clear that the Taliban did not have mercy on women. Before, it was mostly male judges around Afghanistan [who were targeted by assassins] but after that, we were shocked that they could harm us, too.”

As she fielded a raft of calls from terrified family and friends, Nellab was shocked to discover one of the victims in the attack was Zakia Herawi, a Supreme Court judge she’d known since university. News reports said the 47-year-old had been shot in the face, neck and chest.

They had good reason to fear the worst. Nellab had been receiving death threats for years. She’d sent hundreds of men, including Taliban members, to prison for violent crimes against women, and there had been a recent spate of attacks targeting politicians, journalists and activists. Just a month earlier, a female reporter, Malala Maiwand , and her driver had been shot dead on their way to work in Nangarhar Province in the country’s east.

O n a January morning last year, Nellab Hotaki Talash had just arrived at her office in the centre of the Afghan capital of Kabul when her mobile phone rang. First her husband called, then her mother. Both were panicking. They’d just heard that two female judges had been shot dead by gunmen on a motorbike five minutes’ drive from her apartment.

When the Taliban first assumed power in 1996, Nellab was an eight-year-old schoolgirl. Conflict was a constant backdrop to her early years, but she has happy childhood memories playing in her Kabul home with her six siblings. Hers was a family that valued education for both boys and girls – her father was a headmaster at a boys’ school, her mother a teacher.

But after the Taliban takeover, they were left with little choice. The couple shut the door on the four-bedroom unit they’d bought just two years earlier, gathered up their young children and two backpacks of belongings, and embarked on a perilous journey with an unknown destination. “We just wanted to get out of Afghanistan,” she says. “That was the only hope we had.”

Despite the constant stream of trauma and intimidation, she never wanted to quit or leave Kabul. Even when relatives offered to help them move to the UK years ago, the couple declined. Nellab and Malyar, an engineer, felt the need to give back to their war-torn nation. “We had all the opportunities of life in our country. I had a job, he had a job, we had an apartment, a car,” she says. “Obviously, it was my responsibility: I had studied my whole life there, I needed to serve my country.”

One of 17 female judges to settle in Australia with their families after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan last year, the 33-year-old describes a life scarcely imaginable amid this ordinary domesticity. With her husband, Malyar, translating, she describes how each morning after dropping her daughters at preschool, she would preside over a daily roll call of the worst things men can do to women – violent rapes, vicious murders, burnings, stabbings, often at the hands of husbands and fathers.

It’s difficult to reconcile these scenes of gun-toting criminals and street assassinations with the quietly-spoken woman I meet on a sunny Saturday in the NSW city of Newcastle. In her small living room, Nellab is calmly trying to soothe her wailing one-year-old son after he has bumped his head. Three small coffee tables are laden with morning tea – fluffy muffins, cake, glass bowls of sultanas, almonds, pistachios and Kit Kats. She pours green tea and tries to convince her two daughters to take their baby brother to the next room to play. Hers is not a story for children to hear.

In her graduation photo, the then 23-year-old stands in the front row – the only row – of women in front of 110 male counterparts (there were 24 female graduates). They’re all dressed in black judges’ robes trimmed with green and gold.

After completing a bachelor’s degree of Islamic law at Kabul University, she had to sit the notoriously tough entrance exam for the two-year judiciary studies program. Only 150 of the 1800 students who sat the exam passed. “I studied so hard my hair started to fall out,” Nellab recalls. Her hard work paid off – she achieved the fourth-highest mark.

Nellab on her graduation day after completing the judiciary studies program at Kabul University. To secure a coveted place in the competitive course, she says, “I studied so hard my hair started to fall out.”

Nellab seized the new opportunities available for a generation of Afghan girls who came of age in the post-Taliban years, albeit mostly for those from relatively well-off, urban families. Women began joining the police force and army, and becoming lawyers and politicians. Nellab was still a teenager when she decided to follow in the footsteps of her grandfather and two uncles, all judges. “I would see their law books, and I was inspired to be a judge,” she says. She liked that judges were well-respected, and recalls how her uncle began writing her name as “Judge Nellab” when she was still at school. “I liked the sound of it.”

For Nellab, then in year 2, the closure of girls’ schools was devastating. She couldn’t understand why her older brother continued going to class while she had to stay home. By the time the US ousted the Taliban and her school reopened five years later, she was 12. While other girls her age were put in lower classes to make up for the learning they’d missed, she went straight into year 8 alongside much older kids – she’d spent the intervening period studying at home with her parents. “I was the smallest in the room,” she says, smiling broadly as she recalls her first day back. “I was so happy. I had the dream to be an educated woman, to go to university.”

She recalls how her uncle began writing her name as “Judge Nellab” when she was still at school. “I liked the sound of it.”

But after the Taliban began its assault on women’s rights, most females were barred from going to work or travelling without a male guardian, and were required to cover their faces and bodies. The authorities would become notorious for brutal punishments, such as stoning women accused of adultery.

The specialist courts – and the shelters and legal services set up alongside them – represented “a massive social change”, according to Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “The system was imperfect, of course, but it was gradually changing the view that women and girls are the property of male family members who could treat them as they saw fit.”

After working for three years as a judge’s associate, Nellab was appointed to various courts, including those trying alleged terrorists. When she wasn’t wearing her robes, some men assumed she was part of the administrative staff. Not long after she gave birth to her first daughter in 2015, a friend asked her to join the Primary Court of Elimination of Violence Against Women in Kabul.

“There was no special feeling on my behalf,” Nellab admits. “In Afghanistan, you have to marry first and then fall in love.” Did they? “Yes,” she replies, laughing with Malyar. A winter wedding with 400 people took place in 2013, a time they remember as relatively peaceful. “I’d started a new life, got married and was continuing my job. I was so hopeful,” she says.

Nellab may have been smashing through gender barriers, but her marriage was a thoroughly traditional affair, arranged by their families after Malyar asked his sister to get her phone number. The couple didn’t meet until 12 days after they were officially engaged. “It was okay,” she says, when asked if she was happy to let her family choose her husband. She explains she was looking to “marry an educated man, have a good family and for him to be a good boy”.

Not long before this day, the man who would become her husband spotted her on campus. “I don’t remember him because there were many boys,” she says, making Malyar laugh.

He never asked his wife to quit, but after the two female judges were assassinated in January 2021, he wanted her to switch to a more innocuous area of the law. “I was telling her to change to a different court, to civil crimes, traffic crimes. But she said, ‘If I want to be a judge, I have to be involved in such cases.’ ”

After Nellab joined the women’s court, the threatening phone calls and letters escalated. Malyar feared that his wife could be murdered. “It was very easy,” he says. “If you give someone $1000, he can kill anybody.”

When the murder trial began a month later, authorities confirmed her fears. “I was afraid, but it was my job,” she says. “My head was telling me, ‘This is your responsibility, you have to do this, and you have to not be afraid.’ ” Nellab and two other judges found the 19-year-old man guilty and sentenced him to 27 years in prison.

“I was afraid, but it was my job,” she says. “My head was telling me, ‘This is your responsibility, you have to do this, and you have to not be afraid.’ ”

When Nellab headed home that afternoon, she had to walk around the crime scene, which was cordoned off with police tape. The woman’s body had been removed, but her blood still stained the cement. “I was so shocked,” Nellab says. “I knew that this case would come to my court … I was thinking, ‘He could be linked to the Taliban.’ ”

One case in particular still stands out. Nellab was in her office one lunchtime in 2019 when she heard a commotion outside. “Everyone was shouting that a murder had happened,” she remembers. A woman in her late teens, who had fled to a shelter in Kabul to escape her abusive husband, had just been granted a divorce. When the couple walked out of the courthouse, he took a knife from his shoe and stabbed her in the neck.

Hearing how the courts were helping women attain justice made Nellab excited to start her new role. An added bonus was that the court had a creche where she could leave her daughter.

The couple had already moved house three times in 10 years, in search of safer neighbourhoods, but they began taking extra precautions. They wouldn’t go out at night; Nellab would swap her black court attire for colourful clothes before returning home; and wearing a mask became more about hiding her identity than warding off COVID-19.

“If I want to be a judge, I have to be involved in such cases,” Nellab said to her husband after he urged her to switch to a less dangerous court.

“If I want to be a judge, I have to be involved in such cases,” Nellab said to her husband after he urged her to switch to a less dangerous court.Credit:Tim Bauer

When I ask her to describe that hot summer’s day when Taliban fighters rolled into Kabul unopposed, Nellab begins to cry. She apologises for being upset. Her husband sits quietly beside her, tears welling up in his eyes. Just days earlier, she’d cooked an array of traditional dishes to celebrate their son’s 40th day, an important milestone in Afghan culture. “We were feeling it would get worse but had no idea that Afghanistan would collapse,” she says. “We had trust in our government that they would not leave the achievements of 20 years this easily.”

Nellab was at home with the children. While at work, Malyar heard the news that the Taliban had reached the city gates. He tried to get home in a taxi, but the roads were blocked, so he began walking. Afghan security forces, normally a familiar presence on the streets of the capital, were nowhere to be seen. They’d abandoned their gear: kids were playing with the discarded machine guns, civilians were driving armoured tanks. “[But] once they realised the Taliban were there, everything stopped,” he says.

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Meanwhile, Nellab began destroying anything that revealed her identity. She tore up handwritten copies of court decisions and wrapped a cloth around the gun her superiors had given her. Later, she’d ask a relative to return it to the court.

At about 2pm came a phone call from a contact who lived near Kabul’s biggest prison. They could see prisoners walking freely out of the front gates. “There were many murderers there, many people who raped, who stole, now they are free, completely free,” Nellab says. “When the Taliban released the prisoners, my husband and I were scared. No one knows who will come for revenge.”

She received a message to leave home via a WhatsApp group set up by the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) and its Afghan branch. The couple packed clothes, jewellery and a laptop into two backpacks and headed to Nellab’s parents’ home with their daughters and baby boy the same day. “I also bought Snickers chocolate,” adds Malyar. “We were thinking we might get to a place where we would have no [other] food and just have to hide.”

“This guard, who was armed security belonging to the Taliban, was a criminal I had sent to jail for 18 years for rape.”

During the ensuing days, they shuttled among relatives’ homes and hotels. She was told by the IAWJ, which was trying to place female judges and their families on military flights out of Kabul, that they would need to get to the airport at a moment’s notice. As scenes from the chaotic evacuation were broadcast around the world, showing Afghans clinging to the underbelly of hulking, taxiing planes, Nellab and Malyar waited.

Expecting their turn to come at any moment, the couple left their children with her parents one morning about five days after leaving their home and headed to a bank, hoping to withdraw cash. They handed over their bank cards to a staff member and joined the long queue of people waiting to go inside. When Nellab’s name was called, a man carrying an AK-47 stopped her from entering and demanded she take off her mask. When she refused, he grew angry.

It wasn’t until the bank manager came out to see what the problem was that a shocking realisation dawned. “This guard, who was armed security belonging to the Taliban, was a criminal I had sent to jail for 18 years for rape,” Nellab says. She believes he recognised her uncommon surname – Hotaki Talash – on her bank card. It was unusual for Afghan women to combine their own family name with that of their husband.

While the manager argued with the man, the couple quietly slipped away through the crowd and escaped in a taxi. “I can’t express that feeling when I was in front of him,” Nellab says. “That could have been a terrible moment.”

Afterwards, she tried to transfer money online, but her accounts had been blocked. Days later, the last military flights took off from Kabul. “We had this feeling we were stuck,” she says.

Judge Robyn Tupman (left), who is helping evacuate female judges from Afghanistan, with Nellab (at right) and her husband, Malyar, at an afternoon tea with NSW Governor Margaret Beazley.

Judge Robyn Tupman (left), who is helping evacuate female judges from Afghanistan, with Nellab (at right) and her husband, Malyar, at an afternoon tea with NSW Governor Margaret Beazley.

More than 11,000 kilometres away in Sydney, Robyn Tupman was studying maps of Kabul airport, tracking international flight radars and filling out visa applications – vastly outside her remit as a judge in the NSW District Court.

The International Association of Women Judges – Tupman is its secretary – had provided training courses and support to its Afghan members for years. But now that support was taking on a whole new dimension. They were receiving reports that Taliban members were entering the homes of female judges, sometimes beating family members when they couldn’t find them. A Talib shot one judge’s dog in frustration.

Tupman and other IAWJ members began trying to evacuate them on military flights out of Afghanistan, and arrange visas for countries including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US and various European states. She was one of seven judges around the world who took turns monitoring a 24-hour Zoom link that the Afghans could contact.

Due to the time difference with Kabul, Tupman and New Zealand Supreme Court Justice Susan Glazebrook, the association’s president, pulled the night shift. “Sometimes we’d still be there at three and four o’clock in the morning,” says Tupman, a 71-year-old who has worked as a judge for the last 26 years. “We’d be sort of looking rather bleary-eyed; we probably had our PJs on.”

Early on, Tupman was able to secure Australian visas for three judges and find them places on military flights. But first she had to help them pierce the chaos surrounding the airport. “I mean, how we knew what we were doing, goodness only knows,” she says, “because I’ve never been to Kabul.” She recalls hearing gunshots one night over the Zoom link as a judge tried to fight her way through the crowds to the gates. “It was a nightmare.”

She’d track the evacuees’ journey online, from take-off to landing. After the last military planes departed, the IAWJ enlisted the help of agencies such as the International Bar Association, which was funding its own evacuation efforts. It was one of these flights that would eventually carry Nellab and her family to safety.

August had turned to October by the time Nellab left the city she’d called home her entire life. She was told to board a bus heading north-west to Mazar-i-Sharif, the fourth-largest city in Afghanistan. They were given Greek visas and booked on a flight to Athens.

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They had sold their furniture, their car, and some of Nellab’s jewellery to raise cash to take with them. On the day we meet, she’s wearing fine gold earrings and a matching necklace – a wedding gift from her mother, which she couldn’t bring herself to sell. “It was so difficult to leave our parents … but I had no choice but to take care of my children. My mother said, ‘Be happy wherever you are.’ ”

After passing through two checkpoints, they spent a couple of nights in Mazar-i-Sharif before boarding their plane to Greece. “It was strange,” she recalls, “because I was sad that I left my homeland, I left my career, I left my house.” On the other hand, she was “happy that I was with my family and have the hope to get somewhere where I can have a bright future. And I have survived, so I can help the rest of my family get out of Afghanistan.”

Explaining what was happening to their young daughters – four and five at the time – was difficult. “There were many questions,” Nellab says. “My older daughter was asking, ‘Why are we leaving? Where is my room? My toys? I want my friends.’ They asked many questions, but I had no proper answers for them about why we had left Afghanistan and what we were going to do.”

After arriving in Greece, they applied for temporary protection visas for Australia because Nellab had heard it was a “land of opportunities”. It wasn’t until they arrived in Melbourne in January that she felt she could finally relax. “It was a very good feeling,” she says. “I had a good sleep that night.”

Two months later, they were on the move again. Malyar landed an engineering job in a suburb of greater Newcastle. They found a two-bedroom house to rent within walking distance of his office and the local public school.

As morning turns to afternoon, Nellab suggests we take a break on the back verandah to eat the lunch she’s prepared. Refusing all offers of help, she places plates heaped with food onto the red-and-white-check tablecloth. There is a mountain of rice dotted with chunks of lamb, carrot and raisins, which is a traditional Afghan dish called Qabuli palow, beef kofta with lentils, and salad. As we eat under the winter sun, her two girls tell me in English how much they love their kindergarten teacher.

Nellab with her family in Sydney, “It was so difficult to leave our parents (in Kabul),” she says, “but I had no choice but to take care of my children. My mother said, ‘Be happy wherever you are.’ ”

Nellab with her family in Sydney, “It was so difficult to leave our parents (in Kabul),” she says, “but I had no choice but to take care of my children. My mother said, ‘Be happy wherever you are.’ ”

Nellab, who lacks confidence speaking English, says there have been some lonely days in recent months, which she’s mostly spent at home with her young son. She’s watched on in sadness as the Taliban’s crackdown on women’s rights escalates in scenes eerily reminiscent of her childhood. Despite the Taliban’s early pledge to respect their rights, most women are now prevented from going to work; secondary schools for girls are closed; and women have been beaten for not covering their faces and protesting in public.

With the specialist women’s courts no longer operating, those most in need of help now have nowhere to turn. HRW’s Heather Barr says anecdotal evidence suggests gender-based violence has increased since the return of the Taliban, and that girls are at greater risk of child marriage.

“The system to protect women and girls is almost entirely gone,” she says. “Women and girls are more trapped in their homes than ever, most women who were wage-earners have lost that status and the respect that that might have earned them within their families. It’s a perfect storm – on an almost unimaginable level – for violence against women and girls.”

While scores of female Afghan judges are scattered around the world, from New Zealand to Poland, Nellab fears the world is forgetting about the 70 who remain behind. She says they’re in hiding, terrified that their pasts will be exposed, and need to be evacuated. “If your friends are back in your homeland, even if you’re somewhere safe, it’s terrible, you can’t relax.”

Tupman is in daily contact with those in Afghanistan. “We still get security briefings telling us that there’s likely to be a raid in a particular part of Kabul, and we try to pass that on when we can,” she says. She’s calling on the Australian government to grant more humanitarian visas. “The judges left there are very frightened … What we have said to them is, ‘We won’t forget you, and we won’t give up until everybody who wants to leave has left.’ ”

A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs says that the government remains committed to supporting the Afghan community and will offer 31,500 places to its nationals over the next four years. “The government acknowledges the work women judges and other prominent women do on the ground to promote human rights and assist those in need in Afghanistan,” the spokesperson adds.

“After the Taliban returned, these women saw everything they had fought and sacrificed for vanish overnight.”

To help the likes of Nellab adjust to their new lives here, the Australian Association of Women Judges has set up a buddy program that provides practical help. That includes arranging English classes, driving and swimming lessons, providing references for rental properties, and friendship. It is also exploring how the refugees can use their skills here. Tupman has met with university law schools to discuss whether retraining is possible. Working as mediators, particularly in Australia’s Afghan communities, may be an option. But for many of the judges, studying English is the first step. Nellab would like to pursue a career in the law here, but expects it will be difficult to become a judge.

Tupman describes Nellab, whom she finally met at an afternoon tea at Government House in Sydney in June after months of exchanging messages, as “extraordinarily resilient”. She adds, “She’s very committed to succeeding.” But she says all the Afghan judges she’s met feel a great sense of loss.

HRW’s Heather Barr echoes this sentiment, saying they required great determination and courage to succeed. “Many had had to fight within their own families to gain an education and to avoid their careers being shut down through marriage and motherhood, and threats and attacks against women judges, including by the Taliban, were all too common,” she says. “After the Taliban returned, these women saw everything they had fought and sacrificed for vanish overnight.”

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After working so hard to achieve her dream, Nellab could be forgiven for being angry or bitter about having it ripped away. But instead, this generous woman seems sadly resigned. “I had a good position in society back in Afghanistan, but here it is nothing. We will see what will happen. It will take me more time to learn the language and study and get a career back. I will be old!” she laughs.

But she’s grateful she can start a new life in Australia, and is looking forward to moving to Sydney the week after we meet, to be closer to her and Malyar’s parents. They followed them to Australia several months later – Nellab’s job made it too dangerous for them to stay in Afghanistan. Malyar has found a new job in Sydney. Nellab plans to start English classes and to learn to drive.

When I ask how she will help her young kids remember their roots, Nellab returns to her conviction that a person’s life should be of service. “We will try to teach them where they have come from and where they originally belong to,” she says, “but where they are working, where they receive an education, they need to serve there.”

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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