The day the Taliban arrived in Kabul, Dina* went to her office in the city’s law courts as normal. It was deserted. “Only the cleaner was there,” the 41-year-old supreme court judge remembers. “The cleaner said: what are you doing here? Go home!”
Dina gathered as many legal papers and personal documents as she could carry and drove back to the four-storey home she shared with her husband and three children. There, she scanned in the most important bits of paper and burned the lot on her roof terrace. It was painful watching evidence of everything she worked so hard to achieve going up in flames.
For 24 hours she and her husband sat at their laptop, applying for sanctuary in 20 countries. Eventually they received an invitation from the UK, thanks to the intervention of the International Association of Women Judges. They packed a few small rucksacks and left for the airport, wading through sewage to reach the terminal.
For three nights they waited without food or water before boarding a military plane to take them to Dubai and on to Manchester. “It was the most difficult journey of my life, but thank God we arrived here and are safe and comfortable now,” she says.
Six weeks later, Dina and her family are living in a hotel near Manchester airport. She is one of just six female judges who have managed to get to the UK so far. She knows how lucky she is to be alive, but mourns the life she left behind. She cries a lot – “All the day my eyes are red” – and avoids Facebook and Twitter, finding it too painful to see what is going on back in Afghanistan.
The day the Guardian visits, she has learned via a judicial WhatsApp group that a male judge in Afghanistan has been killed by the Taliban. “All judges are in danger, men and women,” she says. She urges the UK and other countries to provide safe passage for all Afghan judges, who are now being hunted down by freed Taliban prisoners they once sent to jail. Their families are also in danger. “Some of the women, their husbands were arrested by the Taliban. Some of their brothers were arrested.”
She has no money, having tried and failed to withdraw her savings before heading to Kabul airport on 25 August.
Her family arrived in the UK with basic summer clothes and are now wearing outfits donated by members of the public via the charity Care4Calais. She wears a sequinned top and an emerald silk scarf with delicate stripes of rainbow colours, covering her hair when in communal areas but letting it drop when we enter her room.
The scarf is the one luxury she brought from home and she wears it with pride. She is enjoying the colder weather, explaining that as a Muslim woman she is expected to cover her arms and legs, which can be stifling in the Kabul summer but cosy during a Mancunian autumn.
She is keen to be a good host, making green tea and offering a random selection of goodies donated by local charities, including a packet of Locket throat lozenges. She wants to explore Manchester, having so far only managed one family outing to the city, where her children were thrilled to go on a doubledecker bus.
She keeps dreaming of being back in court. “I really liked my job. I loved my job,” she says. In the 1990s, her family left Taliban-ruled Afghanistan for Pakistan so that Dina and her sisters could go to school. They returned in 2004 and she worked for a charity mediating domestic violence disputes before studying both sharia and international law.
Dina never planned to leave Afghanistan. In 2012 she got a visa to do some training in Virginia and colleagues urged her to claim asylum and not come back. “But I told them I won’t escape; I don’t want to leave my country. At that time my first baby had been born. He was nine months, and I wanted to come back.”
She doesn’t know how long her family will stay in the hotel. “The Home Office hasn’t told us when we will be moved from here,” she says, “but we are the most happy, most lucky family. We are safe and we are secure.”
*Dina’s name has been changed to protect her identity