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Afghanistan’s abused boys | The World Weekly

“I started dancing at wedding parties when I was 10, when my father died," says Omin in a 2010 interview with the BBC. "We were hungry, I had no choice. Sometimes we go to bed on empty stomachs. When I dance at parties I earn about $2 or some pilau rice.”

The eldest of three, who father's life was claimed by a mine, Omin looks after his siblings while his mother begs on the streets. Omin’s mother knows her son is a bacha bareesh, or beardless boy, and that he is not just expected to dance. He is the sexual plaything of the much older men he is there to entertain.

The ancient cultural practice of bacha bazi, meaning “boy play”, has been making a comeback over the last decade among Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s biggest ethnic group. Young boys are coerced to dance at parties, banquets and informal gatherings, dressed in women’s clothing with bells tied to their feet, with the intention of seducing an all-male audience. The boys are recruited as young as 9 and until the age of 15, sometimes older, they are trained to dance to popular Afghan songs and be loyal to the masters who have “rescued” them from poverty or hunger.

The Taliban, vehemently opposed to paedophilia and homosexuality, used to put practitioners of bacha bazi to death, driving them underground. Since the coalition invasion, the warlords and ex-Mujahideen who have regained positions of power in Afghanistan have begun to use young boys for sex more openly again. Ownership of bacha bereesh is a sign of prestige. The practice is banned under both Afghan and international law, but since its adherents are key allies against the Taliban, NATO has often turned a blind eye.

If soldiers and high-ranking diplomats decided to remain silent, a 2009 WikiLeaks cable revealed what the Afghan government has failed to address, and, together with a powerful 2010 documentary called “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan”, has shed light on repeated cases of child abuse in the war-torn country.

Afghan boy performs the Bazi dance to a group of policemen in Charchino in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, January 27, 2013

Afghanistan has 55 ethnic groups who speak 45 different languages. The biggest ethnicity is the Pashtun with between 42-60% of the population. 

Playing with boys

Under the guise of researching similar practices in Europe, Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi’s “The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan” followed a man named Dastager, a former mujahideen commander and wealthy businessman regarded to be at the centre of the local bacha bazi business in the northern city of Takhar. Priding himself on having a “chai boy”, another euphemistic term, Dastagar was more than willing to accept an interview request. Mr. Quraishi entered the world of bacha bazi in northern Afghanistan, where a man’s importance is measured by the beauty of their bacha bereesh. 

“We’re looking for a boy,” Dastager says, “who’s good for dancing, around 12 or 13, and very attractive, very attractive”. Asked if he sleeps with them, he replies: “Of course!”

“Having a boy has become a custom for us,” says a local man in his mid-forties interviewed by Mr. Quraishi. “Whoever wants to show off should have a boy.”

"I go to every province to have happiness and pleasure with boys," says another Afghan man known as “The German”, who acts as a pimp. "Some boys are not good for dancing, and they will be used for other purposes. I mean for sodomy and other sexual activities."

Young boys are normally recruited in poorer areas, where the prospects of having food, a place to stay and sometimes money are an alternative to the streets. Often they know what the future has in store and in some cases they receive full support from their families who need the money they bring in. In other cases, however, they are gulled by false promises of jobs and parties. Once the boy is recruited he is considered his owner’s property. At the end of the party, he is often shared for sex and, while many men are attached to their boys, the children are sometimes sold to the highest bidder. 

For those who can’t afford it, illegal CDs and DVDs depicting sex acts involving the boys are available for purchase from stalls and carts in Kabul and other towns and cities. But the practice predates such modern media by millennia: poems and tales document Pashtun sexual practices, including bacha bazi, as far back as the pre-Islamic era. 

Zahir-ud-din Muhammad Babur, the first Mughal emperor (1483-1530), wrote in his autobiography about his “frothing up of desire and passion” for a “fairy-faced” young boy called Bahuri and composed several love couplets for him. Professor Rosalind O’Hanlon, in her essay “Imperial Masculinity: Gender and the Construction of Imperial Service under Akbar”, points out that homosexuality was common in the Mughal army. The third Mughal emperor, Akbar (1542-1605), tried to discourage and suppress it, but with very little success. Many warriors were known to have homosexual relations with military servants, slaves and eunuchs without compromising their perceived masculinity. 

Speaking to Reuters, Enayatullah, a 42-year-old landowner, says: ”I was married to a woman 20 years ago, she left me because of my boy. I was playing with my boy every night and was away from home, eventually my wife decided to leave me. I am happy with my decision, because I am used to sleeping with and entertaining with my young boy.”

An Afghan boy walks past mannequins featuring belly-dancing costumes for sale at a bazaar near a NATO camp in Kandahar City

Bacha bazi is in no way acceptable in Islam. Actually, it's child abuse. It's happening because our justice system doesn't work. This country has been lawless for many years and responsible bodies and people can't protect children.” - Grand Mullah at the Shrine of Ali, in an interview with the BBC 

A WikiLeaks cable

In June 2009, WikiLeaks published an American embassy cable in which the then Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar asked former US Assistant Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli not to publish a certain video, attempting to bury a scandal that involved US contractor DynCorp training Afghan officials who took drugs and paid for young dancing boys to entertain them.

WikiLeaks reported: “[US] Assistant Ambassador Mussomeli discussed a range of issues with Minister of Interior (MoI) Hanif Atmar on June 23 [2009]. Atmar said he insisted the journalist be told that publication would endanger lives. His request was that the US quash the article and release of the video. Amb. Mussomeli responded that going to the journalist would give her the sense that there is a more terrible story to report. Atmar then disclosed the arrest of two Afghan National Police (ANP) and nine other Afghans (including RTC language assistants) as part of an MoI investigation into Afghan ‘facilitators’ of the event. The crime he was pursuing was ‘purchasing a service from a child’, which in Afghanistan is illegal under both sharia law and the civil code, and against the ANP Code of Conduct for police officers who might be involved.”

The episode fuelled demands that contractors and private security companies are placed under much tighter control by the Afghan government, to prevent the leak of embarrassing information to local and Western media. But what the story really reveals is the Afghan government’s reluctance to deal with the widespread use of boys for sexual pleasure among the army and police. While it remains underreported, following the WikiLeaks revelations child abuse in Afghanistan began to receive international attention.

Arrests, as Najibullah Quraishi’s Dancing Boys documentary attests, would appear to be only a temporary measure. Commanders and military officials are powerful men who, in a legal system so fragmented and with such little accountability, have the resources to bribe their way out of jail. 

As Mr. Quraishi said in a 2012 interview with Huffington Post: “There is no question that the highest authorities in Afghanistan are aware of the practice”. When challenged on this by a UN official, even President Karzai remarked: "Let us win the war first. Then we will deal with such matters."

“Women are for children, boys are for pleasure”

Set free between the ages of 15 and 18, young men who have been bacha bareesh are expected to reintegrate themselves in society and reclaim their male identity through marriage. Many go on to repeat the cycle of sexual abuse, their wives forced to accept their relationships with young boys, according to a 2010 sociological study conducted by the US Department of Defense Human Terrain Team.

The study, entitled “Pashtun Sexuality”, points out that men who have a boy are also likely to integrate him into their family by arranging a marriage with their daughter. But as men increasingly use boys for sexual gratification, women in their households and communities find themselves overlooked and confined to subordinate roles, further contributing to their marginalisation in Afghan society. 

A young Afghan Batcha Bazi (Dancing Boy) performs a dance in a private party on November 22, 2008 in a small city in the north

A Pashtun motto - “women are for children, boys are for pleasure” - seems to be the guideline for many powerful men who elevate their status by surrounding themselves with young boys. As well as a sign of prestige, the practice is also thought to make up for the Quran’s ban on any sexual activity with women before marriage, transgressing which can result in stigma, revenge and honour killings.

Women were excluded from public life in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s formal rule, and continue to occupy an unequal position, often seen as unclean and undesirable. Menstruating women aren’t supposed to touch the Quran, enter the mosque, offer the ritual prayer or have sex with their husbands for seven whole days.

Warlords fighting in the name of jihad deny accusations of homosexuality or of acting against Islam, the strict interpretation of which bans same-sex activities. But as the US Defense Department study confirms, sodomy in the context of bacha bazi is considered a “normal” practice. Illiteracy has also played a part in condoning bacha bazi, as rural Afghan men rely on the interpretations of their local mullah rather than on the actual Quranic text.

More than one solution

Interviewed by a local Afghan reporter, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, in October 2007, former warlord Allah Daad said: “Some men enjoy playing with dogs, some with women. I enjoy playing with boys”. The word “play” suggests an innocence that belies the torture and violence which bacha bareesh are known to suffer.

According to UNICEF, 12% of Afghan children were orphans in 2003. 

According to analysis conducted by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, 81% of the victims interviewed said that they want to leave, with 58% saying they had been subjected to beatings, were confined, and/or had received death threats. A UN White Paper released in 2010 reported numerous murders of teenagers believed to have been forced to have sex in Afghan military bases, where child abuse is rampant and often goes unchecked.

Children in Herat on November 30, 2014. As winter sets in across Central Asia, many Afghans struggle to find food and shelter

“The Afghan government, the Ulama (Islamic scholars) and the fundamentalist Taliban now fighting the government are all officially against the practice, as is civil society. So everybody’s against this practice but it continues with impunity,”  UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy said in 2011. “It seems to be widespread and it has to be fought and we need some prosecutions if we’re going to turn things around.”

In February 2011, under an action plan which Dr. Coomaraswamy signed with Afghan officials in Kabul, the government committed to protect children affected by armed conflict, prevent the recruitment of minors into the national armed forces and end the practice of bacha bazi. But the persistence of bacha bazi is tied up with Afghanistan’s host of current problems: the product of  years of conflict, poverty, lack of education and inadequate law enforcement. Without this last factor, in particular, being addressed, the practice will continue to thrive in secret and the lives of more young boys will be endangered.

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