Bacha bazi: The stolen childhood of boys turned into dancers, sex slaves in Afghanistan
For some boys, the only escape is to forge a secret deal with the Taliban, which has successfully recruited boy sex slaves hungry for revenge to kill their abusers within police ranks.
Adorned in makeup, fake breasts and bells, Jawed whirls around middle-aged men at Kabul’s underground bacha bazi, or “boy play” parties, where the former child sex slave finds freedom of sorts as a dancing boy.
Jawed was kidnapped by a former jihadi commander in Shomali, north of Kabul, when he was barely 14, a victim of a hidden epidemic in Afghanistan of culturally-sanctioned male rape.
He is one of three former “bachas” traced by AFP who managed to escape their abusers. Their testimonies shed searing light on the stolen lives of boy sex slaves, often seen as caricatures of shame and cast out of their families, with many like Jawed falling prey to a new cycle of abuse.
Four years after he was kidnapped, Jawed’s commander replaced him with a new boy slave, and “gifted” him to another strongman.
The 19-year-old says he escaped one night amid the chaos of a gunfight at a wedding where his new captor took him to entertain guests.
But dancing is the only skill he has that can earn a livelihood, having had no education and with virtually no protection offered in Afghanistan for bacha bazi survivors.
Now he performs for powerful male patrons at dance parties, where the evening often ends in sex -- underlining how, even when they are free, victims struggle to break out of the role that has been forced on them.
“Fights usually break out over who will take me home” after the parties, 19-year-old Jawed told AFP, requesting that his real name not be revealed.
‘Transform into a woman’
Bacha bazi is not seen as homosexuality in Afghanistan’s gender segregated society -- instead the possession of young boys decked out as pretty women symbolises power and primacy. It is carried out with impunity often within Western-backed Afghan forces.
After two failed attempts that resulted in a beating, 15-year-old Gul escaped barefoot at the end of three months of captivity in a police outpost in Helmand’s Nad Ali district.
But there was no going home again. Gul lives constantly on the move, chased by the paralysing fear he will be kidnapped once more.
His parents and brothers, meanwhile, have been forced to flee their home over fears the powerful commander will come looking for him.
“‘Transform yourself into a woman,’ the checkpoint commander would tell me” with makeup and ankle bells, Gul told AFP by telephone from his hiding place.
Gul was one of three bachas at the checkpoint. Troublingly, he said, the policemen prowled for more victims -- especially effeminate boys from poor families unable to fight back.
“They tried to outdo each other: ‘My boy is more handsome than yours, my boy is a better dancer’,” he said.
For some the only escape is to forge a secret deal with the Taliban, who have successfully recruited boy sex slaves hungry for revenge to kill their abusers within police ranks, AFP revealed last year.
‘Save my boy’
Unlike many other victims, Gul is relatively fortunate in that his family was ready to take him back.
“Family honour is like a glass of water. One speck of dirt ruins it,” said Aimal, a former bacha in his 30s who was abandoned by his parents. “If I were a woman, my family wouldn’t leave me alive.”
The shame also stalks parents who try to help their children, say medical professionals in southern Afghanistan who treat the brutally violated survivors.
“Increasingly parents will bring boys saying they have bowel problems,” said a surgeon in Helmand province, where bacha bazi is widespread, corroborating what two other health officials told AFP.
“But a closer examination shows the boys were raped and need to be stitched up. The parents break down in tears: ‘We want no publicity, just save my boy.’“
Aimal, who requested his real name be withheld, was discarded after years of enslavement to a jihadi commander in northern Balkh province as he began sprouting a beard.
Now a youth activist in Kabul, he said he did not want to end up the way that many other victims do -- becoming predators themselves.
President Ashraf Ghani this year laid out stringent penalties against bacha bazi for the first time in a revised penal code, but the government has given no time frame over when they will be enforced.
Instead, authorities in February launched a massive raid on a bacha bazi party in Kabul, jailing not the organisers but a handful of dancing boys, multiple witnesses told AFP.
“For me dancing is not a crime,” said Aimal. “This culture of victimising the victim must end.”
In a country with little legal protection or psychosocial support, victims might be lucky to escape their abusers but not their past. Almost by default, prostitution has become a common fallback for many abused boys.
“Dancing has become too risky” since the raid, Jawed told AFP before he sidled back into his underground life. “Now I might only do sex work.”