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Alumna Mentors Legal Colleagues in Afghanistan

Spring 2014 | By Stacey Mickelbart. Photos courtesy of Sarah Wannarka.

Wearing a military flak jacket, Sarah Wannarka (BA 1995, Brian Lamb School of Communication and Sociology) stands on a foothill overlooking Kabul City.

Surprised to meet two female police trainers teaching hand-to-hand combat moves, Wannarka requested a photo with them. The woman on the right led the police training.
Surprised to meet two female police trainers teaching hand-to-hand combat moves, Wannarka requested a photo with them. The woman on the right led the police training.

During her 19-month detail with the Department of Justice in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sarah Wannarka (BA 1995, Brian Lamb School of Communication and Sociology) took plenty of photographs to remember her time there. But it was the sound of a woman’s voice that generated one of her favorite memories. Visiting a law enforcement training facility, she heard a woman yelling at someone—unusual, says Wannarka, because, “You don’t usually see many women out in the community, let alone hear them.” In the distance, she spotted 20 new police recruits going through basic training, led by a female police officer. She was teaching them hand-to-hand combat moves and making one lagging recruit do push-ups.

Wannarka was surprised. “In Afghanistan, not only are many women not working or in school, but also they aren’t coming into contact with men they’re not related to, and they’re certainly not touching them!” Impressed by the supervisor’s authority, Wannarka approached her with greetings in Dari and motioned to request a photo.

Though the supervisor and another female police trainer on site seemed pleased to see a female visitor, Wannarka could only exchange pleasantries without an interpreter available. But after taking a photo, “I shook their hands, and held their hands really tightly, so that they could know how proud I was and that I was wishing them all the luck I could. It was a moment of mutual admiration and respect; we didn’t need to say anything.”

How did Wannarka, a federal prosecutor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Antonio, work her way from Purdue to Kabul? Tradition prompted her university choice; her mother and father attended Purdue, and two of her siblings are also alumni. Focused on her long-term goal of law school, she chose undergraduate areas of concentration that interested her. “There is great application to law school, obviously: sociology to understand people, and public relations for selling an idea—essentially a lawyer has to do both.”

After graduating from Purdue and Baylor Law School, her first stop was rural Bastrop County, outside Austin, Texas, where she prosecuted all kinds of cases, from traffic tickets to murders. Now, as an assistant U.S. attorney in San Antonio, she focuses primarily on child exploitation cases, as well as federal firearm and narcotics law violations.

But it was the idea of mentoring professional women in Afghanistan that attracted her to the temporary posting. A colleague who had recently returned from a similar detail shared her story, and the idea began to grow on Wannarka. The Department of Justice’s mission there, she explains, “is to support the rule of law in Afghanistan by helping to train and mentor prosecutors, judges, and investigators to increase their capacity in law, practice, procedure, evaluating evidence, and guiding cases through the trial process.” After consulting with the program manager and deciding it was a good fit, she waited until a space opened up, and arrived in Kabul about a year later.

Wannarka worked with the Counter Narcotics Justice Center (CNJC), an effort supported by the U.S. and British governments, but run by Afghans, as a special court system to support the prosecution of drug cases. Perhaps because of its unique formation, says Wannarka, “This particular drug court gave me an opportunity to interact with professional women that I wouldn’t have been able to see in any other line of engagement.” Although the number of female judges and prosecutors across Afghanistan is growing, she explains, the CNJC has a higher number of female prosecutors and judges than many other courts. The women of the CNJC are courageous, smart, and professional, she says, noting that “their very existence in that profession is a risk.”

To prepare for her role as a mentor, she read Afghanistan’s penal code, criminal procedure code, and court law. But to really learn about another country’s legal system, you have to immerse yourself in it, she says, explaining the differences between the Afghan civil justice system and the U.S. system she’s used to operating in. Instead of a jury, a three-judge panel decides cases. And instead of admitting evidence or testimony in the courtroom, a prosecutor prepares a case file ahead of time, including witness statements, lab and police reports, and any other pieces of evidence, and presents it to the court a few weeks ahead of the trial. By the time the trial begins, the panel of judges is completely familiar with the case, so arguments from the prosecution and defense attorneys largely comprise the proceedings. If the accused wants to speak, he or she can do so, and then the panel issues a sentence from the bench, or takes a recess and issues it in writing.

“I wasn’t there to make their system American,” Wannarka points out. “I was there to help make them better prosecutors and judges within their own system of laws and court procedures.” To do this, she had to rely heavily on a translator, since trials were primarily in Dari and sometimes in Pashto or both languages. The translator took notes and then explained what happened afterwards.

“My days at the drug court could include attending a trial, visiting with a prosecutor about a question, talking about evidence, or maybe visiting with a judge about different interpretations of the law. We never advised on pending cases; we were very careful about that. We engaged in general legal discussions,” she says.

Click to view select photos
Click above to view gallery of select photos from Wannarka's time in Afghanistan.

Outside of the court, life was restricted primarily to the U.S. Embassy compound, which Wannarka couldn’t leave except for mission-related duties, due to security risks. Accommodations were spare but comfortable: each person had her own “hooch”—essentially a shipping container converted into a living space with a private bathroom and heat and air conditioning. Wannarka had to plan in advance to avoid running out of things like deodorant or laundry detergent, or scour the base for them.

The compound, filled with other State Department staff, law enforcement officers, and military personnel, was a supportive environment in the face of very real security threats. The crisis set off by the burning of copies of the Koran by NATO personnel at Bagram Air Base occurred just days after Wannarka arrived in Afghanistan, setting off violent protests in Bagram and Kabul. Dozens of “green on blue” attacks, where uniformed Afghans turned their weapons on American or coalition counterparts, also occurred during the 19 months of her detail. While it was a difficult place in which to live, says Wannarka, “You have to learn to put it in the back of your mind, or you are not able to function in that kind of environment.” She noted that what got her through were “the camaraderie and the family feeling with all of the other people [in the compound] who were missing their families also.”

Wannarka also observed the more grueling landscape facing members of the military. Some of the training sessions she led took place with regional judges and prosecutors in tiny forward operating bases in the mountains of northern Afghanistan. “I did get to see firsthand the conditions that our active duty military lived in, and what they face every day with regard to attacks, and what their activities are in response. It makes me appreciate their service even more.”

In Kabul and more remote places, Wannarka wondered what her reception, both as a woman and a leader, would be. She worried that men who weren’t used to interacting with women outside of their families, who would normally be trained by other men in a specific hierarchy, might not accept her—especially because she had decided not to cover her hair while in Afghanistan. Instead, she says, “Honestly, I was welcomed everywhere I went. I was treated so well, by every Afghan person that we met.”

Though it took some time for her to settle back into life in the U.S., she has resumed her work, as well as community activities that benefit women and children, mirroring her professional interests. As a member of the Junior League of San Antonio, she promotes women’s leadership through community service. She also volunteers as a wish granter for the “Make-a-Wish” foundation, interviewing children and their families to find out what their greatest wishes are.

While she’s aware of and pragmatic about the huge hurdles that Afghans face in continuing to rebuild their war-torn nation, including corruption, lack of infrastructure, and inadequate educational facilities, she hopes her time there helped support the rule of law, as well as a woman’s role in it. “I worked with professionals who wanted to make their community and country better, so that was an honor. Obviously it was difficult to use an interpreter and learn their whole system, but that was part of what made the experience rich.”

And part of her drive to contribute was influenced by her time at Purdue—a place she feels offers multiple opportunities to serve. “I think that kind of environment really fuels someone to go out in the world and continue to serve,” she says, adding, “It’s nice to get outside of our little bubble and experience the way other people live and work and socialize.”

Wannarka participates in a breakout meeting with Afghan police officers. Wannarka meets with a small group  of judges at a Counter Narcotics Justice Center training session. The chief judge (far right) mentored the two female judges, inviting them to work at the CNJC.
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