Hope­less Afghan strug­gle to res­cue boy sex slaves

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Quiv­er­ing with quiet rage, Shirin holds a photo of his teenage broth­erin-law, who now lives as the play­thing of po­lice­men, just one vic­tim of a hid­den epi­demic of kid­nap­pings of young boys for in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized sex­ual slav­ery in Afghanistan. Shirin is among 13 fam­i­lies AFP traced and in­ter­viewed across three Afghan prov­inces who said their chil­dren were taken for the per­va­sive prac­tice of “bacha bazi”, or pe­dophilic ex­ploita­tion, in West­ern-backed se­cu­rity forces.

Their tes­ti­monies shine a rare spot­light on the an­guished, soli­tary strug­gles to free sons, neph­ews and cousins from a tra­di­tion of cul­tur­ally-sanc­tioned en­slave­ment and rape. Shirin re­called how his 13-year-old brother-in-law screamed and writhed as he was taken from his home ear­lier this year by a po­lice com­man­der in south­ern Helmand. “When I begged for his re­lease, his men pointed their guns and said: ‘Do you want your fam­ily to die? For­get your boy’,” Shirin told AFP in Lashkar Gah.

“Our boys are openly ab­ducted for bacha bazi. Where should we go for help? The Tale­ban?” The heart-wrench­ing sto­ries, mostly from Helmand but also from neigh­bor­ing Uruz­gan and north­ern Bagh­lan, were re­vealed af­ter AFP re­ported in June how the Tale­ban are ex­ploit­ing bacha bazi in po­lice ranks to mount deadly in­sider at­tacks. The re­port, de­nied by the in­sur­gents, prompted an Afghan gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion. AFP is with­hold­ing the names of the vic­tims and the ac­cused po­lice com­man­ders as many of the boys are still be­ing held cap­tive.

‘Crazed with grief’

A com­mon theme in the tes­ti­monies col­lected from stricken fam­i­lies was that of help­less­ness. Their boys were mostly ab­ducted in broad day­light; from their homes, opium farms and play­grounds. Once taken cap­tive, they can be shuf­fled among po­lice check­points, com­pli­cat­ing ef­forts to trace them.

Some­times they emerge into the open as po­lice­men flaunt their spoils. For fa­thers like Sar­dar­wali, the crushed hope of such an en­counter is al­most too much to bear. Af­ter months of fruit­less search­ing, he caught a glimpse of his kid­napped son in a crowded mar­ket­place in Helmand’s Gereshk dis­trict. The child-a slight boy who loved noth­ing bet­ter than play­ing with his sib­lings-was dressed in a fine em­broi­dered tu­nic and wore a be­jew­elled skull cap. Sar­dar­wali was des­per­ate to reach out to his son, to hold him-but did not dare ap­proach the bevy of po­lice­men that sur­rounded him.

“I watched him dis­ap­pear into the dis­tance,” Sar­dar­wali said. “His mother is crazed with grief. She can­not stop cry­ing: ‘We have lost our son for­ever.’” Par­ents’ agony of los­ing a child to sex­ual slav­ery is com­pounded by con­cerns that in cap­tiv­ity their boys will be­come ad­dicted to the opi­ates some are given to make them sub­mis­sive. Worse still, many fear they could be taken to re­in­force front­lines, where po­lice are suf­fer­ing record ca­su­al­ties in their fight against the Tale­ban. Or-as one Helmand fam­ily shock­ingly dis­cov­ered-get killed in the cross­fire as in­sur­gents over-run the check­points where they are held. Still, some fam­i­lies take grim so­lace in the knowl­edge they are not alone. Their vil­lages are full of bacha bazi vic­tims, many dis­carded when their beards be­gin to show.

‘Un­con­scionable’

Bacha bazi has seen a chill­ing resur­gence in post-Tale­ban Afghanistan, where it is not widely per­ceived as ho­mo­sex­ual or un-Is­lamic be­hav­ior. Young boys dressed ef­fem­i­nately have an or­na­men­tal value in a so­ci­ety where the gen­ders are tightly cor­ralled. Their pos­ses­sion is a mark of so­cial sta­tus, power and mas­culin­ity. The prac­tice has spurred a vi­o­lent cul­ture of one-up­man­ship within po­lice ranks, as of­fi­cers jeal­ously com­pete to snatch the most beau­ti­ful boys, said a for­mer top Helmand se­cu­rity of­fi­cial.

“Of­ten the only es­cape for en­slaved bachas is to make a deal with the Tale­ban: ‘Lib­er­ate me and I will help you get my abuser’s head and weapons’,” the of­fi­cial said, re­fer­ring to in­sider at­tacks. The Afghan gov­ern­ment has said it has zero tol­er­ance for child abusers in se­cu­rity ranks. But Uruz­gan gov­ern­ment spokesman Dost Mohammad Nayab ac­knowl­edged nearly every provin­cial check­point had a bacha. He fears any move to ex­tri­cate them could see an­gry po­lice­men aban­don­ing their posts, paving the way for the Tale­ban.

“It is dif­fi­cult to separate po­lice­men from their bachas in this se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion,” Nayab said, ex­plain­ing that po­lice serve as a piv­otal first line of de­fence against in­sur­gents. But for cam­paign­ers like Charu Lata Hogg, a Lon­don-based fel­low at the Chatham House think-tank, cit­ing se­cu­rity as an ex­cuse for in­ac­tion is un­con­scionable. —AFP

This pho­to­graph taken on Oc­to­ber 31, 2016 shows an Afghan boy, who was held as a child sex slave, sit­ting at a restau­rant in an uniden­ti­fied lo­ca­tion in Afghanistan. — AFP

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