The Dancing Boys of the North
Wealthy strongmen recruit adolescent boys for entertainment and sex, with the local authorities powerless to stop the practice.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif (ARR No. 268, 10-Oct-07)
“Some men enjoy playing with dogs, some with women. I enjoy playing with boys,” said Allah Daad, a one-time mujahedin commander in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz.
He is one of a growing number of men involved in what is known as “bacha baazi”— literally, “boy-play” — a time-honoured tradition, deplored by human rights activists and clerics, that is seeing a revival in the relatively secure north of Afghanistan.
The boys are kept by powerful older men, made to dance at special parties, and often sexually abused afterwards. Known as “bacha bereesh” - literally, “beardless boys”, they are under 18, with 14 the preferred age.
“When I was young, I had a bacha bereesh who was the best in the region,” recalled Allah Daad, 44. “He danced like a flying pigeon.... Nobody could take his place afterwards. I kept him for three years, then left him when he matured.”
Allah Daad has kept many boys over the years, and says he enjoys his “hobby”. “I am married, but I prefer boys to women,” he said. “You can’t take women with you to parties in this region, and you can’t make them dance. These boys are our [mark of] prestige.”
Large halls known as “qush-khana” provide the venues for bacha baazi parties where the boys’ “owners” or “kaatah” invite their friends to watch them dancing. Late in the night, when the dancing is over, the boys are often shared with close friends, for sexual abuse.
Allah Daad explained how the boys are enticed into the arrangement. “First we select boys in the village and later on we try to trick them into coming with us,” he said. “Some of them stay with us for money; they get a monthly allowance, and in return we can have them any time we want. They don’t stay with us all the time - they can do their own jobs and then just come to parties with us.”
If a boy refuses to become a bacha bereesh, he said, there is little a man can do to make him. “We can’t force them,” he insisted. “Only the very powerful can have boys with them all the time.”
The owner will take his boy to wedding parties to show him off to other men.
“When the party starts, the boys are dressed in special clothes, called ‘jaaman’,” continued Allah Daad. “Then Mazari dancing bells are tied to their feet and they dance in time to the music.”
Several different types of dances are popular, he explained, each with its own beat. If the boy refuses to dance or performs badly, his master beats him with a long stick.
“We have to do that,” said Allah Daad. “We spend money on these boys, so they have to dance.”
Allah Dad’s current bacha, who is 16, refused to be interviewed.
Another owner forced his 14-year-old boy to speak, although he would not give his name.
“I was dancing last night,” he said, looking exhausted. “I have been doing this for the past year. I have no choice - I’m poor. My father is dead, and this is the only source of income for me and my family. I try to dance well, especially at huge parties. The men throw money at me, and then I gather it up. Sometimes they take me to the market and buy me nice clothes.”
The tradition of older men maintaining adolescent boys is by no means restricted to the north of Afghanistan, but the custom is in abeyance in the south, where the Taleban and their strict moral code act as a deterrent.
In the north, no such curbs exist, and bacha baazi has seen a massive resurgence in the past few years.
“Bacha baazi has increased tremendously lately and is still on the rise,” said Baz Gul, a resident of Kunduz. “In the past, people were ashamed of it, and tried to hide it. Now nobody is shy about it, and they participate openly in these parties.”
He explained that there were several reasons why the practice had become more common, one of which was the growing influence of local strongmen, who regard bacha baazi as status symbols.
These militia commanders are supposed to have demobilised their forces and handed over their weapons, but as IWPR has reported, many still rule the roost on the ground and retain the power to intimidate the local population.
Baz Gul said poverty was another reason why boys could find themselves ensnared, while the government had failed to do much about the problem and its police force enjoyed little public confidence.
“It used to be that only a few people had boys. Now everyone owns one and the authorities don’t care about it at all,” he said. “It’s got to the point where almost no party takes place without dancing boys. It’s seen as a disgrace if you don’t have dancing boys at your wedding. This has led to a rise in immoral behaviour among boys, and if nothing is done about it, this trend will continue.”
For some, a bacha bereesh is a status symbol.
“I am not really rich, but I am just as good as the wealthy,” said Nasruddin, known as Nasro Bay, who lives in Baghlan province. “I want as many bacha bereesh as possible, so that when I go to parties I am no worse than anybody else.”
Nasro Bay insisted that the dancing boy tradition was a good one.
“It’s a good thing,” he said. “We have our own culture. In foreign countries, the women dance. We have our own dances which don’t exist anywhere else in the world.”
Militia commanders and other men of substance buy and sell good-looking boys, using the bacha baazi parties as marketplaces.
“Commanders and wealthy men arrange parties in order to select a bacha bereesh,” said Nek Mohammad, a resident of Baghlan’s Andarab district who frequently attends dance parties, although he does not own a bacha bereesh himself. “Many of the men make their boys dance at these parties, and other men choose one and pay for him. By the end of the party, the boy has acquired a new owner.”
He said substantial amounts of money changes hands in these transactions.
Like Nasro Bay, Nek Mohammad sees public ostentation as part of the bacha baazi tradition.
“Commanders often take their boys to a market and buy them beautiful clothes, as a challenge to other commanders. Sometimes they even give them cars. That gives them a very big reputation,” he said.
Religious scholars condemn the custom, which they count as one of the most sinful acts possible.
“Making boys dance and sexually abusing them is strictly prohibited by Islam,” said Mawlawi Ghulam Rabbani, a religious leader in Takhar province. “Those who engage in it should be punished. They should be thrown off a mountain and stoned to death.”
Local officials admit the practice is prevalent but are at a loss as to how to combat it.
“Yes, bacha baazi is practiced a great deal, especially in the Khost-o-Fering and Andarab districts,” said Hafizullah Khaliqyar, head of the prosecutor’s office for Baghlan province. “Boys are forced to dance, they are sexually abused, and they are even bought and sold. Fights take place over these bacha bereesh. It’s increasing day by day, and it’s catastrophic.”
Khaliqyar said there was little that prosecutors could do. “The police and district heads won’t cooperate with us,” he complained. “They don’t send us their files, so we can’t take action.”
He said the paramilitary commanders involved were so powerful that no one – not even the police – would raise a hand against them.
“Regional commanders engage in this practice and support it,” he said. “They have money, power and weapons, and neither the district heads nor the local population dares to tell us about this.”
However, Khaliqyar said he is committed to fighting the practice and had had some successes.
“We treat this matter very seriously. It’s against the law, and the perpetrators should be punished,” he said.
Police in Pul-e-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan, recently raided a bacha-baazi hall and arrested 30 men. “Their case is currently with the Supreme Court. We have sent several men to prison on these types of charges,” said Khaliqyar.
In Takhar province, the head of the local security agencies, General Sayed Ahmad Saame, also complained about lack of cooperation from the public.
“We have closed every bacha baazi centre we have found,” he said. “We have forwarded seven cases to the prosecutor’s office so far this year.”
But there is only so much the police can do. “This practice has such a long history in this province that local people treat it as a respected custom, and won’t cooperate with us. This is a serious obstacle to our work,” said Saame.
General Asadullah Amarkhail, the security chief in Kunduz, agreed that public cooperation was needed if the practice was to be curbed, although to date 27 people had been arrested in his province.
Mohammad Zaher Zafari, head of the northern branch of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, bemoaned the government’s inability to take action.
“Unfortunately I have to say that this type of dancing, sexual abuse and even the sale of boys has been going on for years,” he said. “It is a despicable culture. The boys involved are usually poor, underage or orphans, and they are forced into it by their economic circumstances.
“It’s shocking from both a humanitarian and a legal point of view. The boys who do this have a very dark future ahead of them – they will always be ashamed and they grow into frustrated human beings, and, pose a threat to community. The government has taken no action on this issue, and child abuse is still being practiced.”
Khaliqyar took a similar view of the damage done to the bacha bereesh, saying it destroys their identity.
“If the United Nations and the government don’t take this issue as seriously as they do child-trafficking and drug-smuggling, and punish the offenders, it’s going to be almost impossible to prevent it,” he said.
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.
Afghan Strongman’s Reign of Fear
Panicked residents of Faryab province say a local warlord is exacting tribute and abusing civilians while the government does nothing to stop him.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Faryab (ARR No. 269, 18-Oct-07)Shahabudin fled when life became intolerable for him in his native district of Pashtun Kot, in the northern Afghan province of Faryab. He claims that a former militia commander has taken over Pashtun Kot and is ruling virtually unchallenged.
Some commentators say the situation here exemplifies a wider pattern of lawlessness where paramilitary strongmen are effectively sidelining local administrations in parts of northern Afghanistan, at a time when attention is focused on the war against the Taleban in the south.
“Abdul Rahman Shamal reigns in [Pashtun Kot], and he roams the district on his horses just like a king. He is accompanied by armed men on horseback. Anyone who sees him coming tries to hide,” said Shahabudin. “He treats people like slaves, and no one can do a thing without his permission.
“When we marry off our daughters, we have to go to the commander, offer him 5,000 afghani [100 US dollars] and ask his permission. Otherwise the marriage will not be possible.”
Shamal was formerly, at least, a militia commander within Junbesh-e-Milli-ye-Islami (National Islamic Movement), the military faction led by Uzbek strongman General Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Dostum is a controversial figure, but he has been at least partially co-opted into government, serving as chief of staff to the commander-in-chief of Afghanistan’s armed forces. However, some of his former lieutenants are using the power vacuum in the north to exert their authority. Despite concerted drives in recent years to dismantle the numerous irregular forces across Afghanistan, such men still retain significant private militias.
In Faryab, at least, the continuing existence of illegal armed groups is no secret. In August 2006, Shamal’s forces clashed with those of another commander, Khalifa Saleh, who was aligned with a major rival of Dostum. Some 300 armed men took part in the fight, which left 14 people dead. (See IWPR’s story on this, “Afghan Interior Ministry Takes on Armed Factions”, ARR No.228, 1-Sep-06.)
Shahabudin alleged that men are forcibly levied from local families to join Shamal’s paramilitaries.
“Anyone who refuses to send his son to the commander’s militia is beaten or even killed,” he said.
He added that the militia commander extorts money to buy horses and provide food for his men. Once again, resistance is punished by imprisonment or torture.
An arrest warrant has been issued for Shamal, and both government security forces and their international allies claim to be searching for him.
But while local people seem to know exactly where Shamal and his men are operating, the commander has not been detained.
“We have conducted three operations against this commander,” said General Khalilullah Ziaee, chief of police in Faryab province.
“But the terrain favours him. He hides in the mountains, and when we approach, he sees us coming three hours before we can get to him, and he makes an easy escape. Later on, when we are gone, he comes back.”
Ziaee said that police were determined to capture the commander, but lacked the resources to do so.
“We want to save people from his evil-doing,” he said. “But he runs away when we attack him, and we don’t have the horses to chase him with.”
In the end, Shahabudin had to make his own choice. “Life became unbearable. Death and dishonour followed us. So we had to flee,” he said.
Mullah Yar Bay is another Pashtun Kot resident who fled to escape the commander’s rule, which he said involved arbitrary detention, torture and murder.
“Commander Shamal has private prisons and he arrests those who do not obey him,” he said. “Many of those who have defied him have either disappeared or been imprisoned. Our lives and everything we own belong to this commander.”
Local residents chafing under the yoke are angry that the authorities are unable – perhaps even unwilling – to find the commander.
“The government doesn’t want to catch Shamal,” said a man who still lives in Pashtun Kot. “They come into his area and leave without doing anything. I am sure that if the government does fight him, it will not win.”
This interviewee believed the authorities were allowing Shamal a free hand in Pashtun Kot to keep him from branching out into other parts of the province.
“The government makes promises, but they are just deceiving people. I’ve decided to go and live somewhere else, because as long as Shamal is alive, no one can do anything in Pashtun Kot,” he said.
Sattar Barez, Faryab’s deputy governor, acknowledged that the presence of Shamal was a problem, but insisted the authorities were taking steps to deal with it.
“It is totally wrong to say that the government is silent,” he said. “[Shamal] is a criminal who tortures and beats people. His crimes are known to everyone. We have plans to deal with him soon.”
IWPR was unable to contact Shamal, but spoke to Junbesh, the party with which he was formerly connected and allegedly still is.
Junbesh officials say their party has made the transition from armed faction to legitimate political party, and deny links with commanders such as Shamal.
Deputy party leader Kinja Kargar told IWPR that the party was fully compliant with Afghan laws, which ban political groups from maintaining links with armed groups.
“Junbesh is a powerful public party that has dissolved all of its military branches under DIAG and DDR,” he said, referring to two government-sponsored programmes, Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups and its predecessor, the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration scheme.
Critics say both programmes, which were backed by the United Nations and which cost tens of millions of dollars, were less than successful.
But Kargar was adamant that the Junbesh organisation no longer embraces armed groups.
“Anyone in possession of weaponry does not belong to Junbesh,” he said.
Faryab’s police chief told IWPR that political parties often issue such disclaimers. “[Shamal] belongs to a party that is known to everyone,” said Ziaee. “The party denies the relationship so as to avoid legal problems.”
Human rights groups are worried about the situation, saying they have brought their concerns to the authorities’ attention but little action has been taken.
“This issue is of great concern, but unfortunately we have no powers of enforcement,” he said Zaidullah Paiwand, the head of the Faryab branch of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. “We see here that commanders torture people, rob them and beat them. We have received many complaints against this commander [Shamal]. We have submitted all our reports to the law enforcement agencies, but unfortunately nothing significant has happened.”
Paiwand could not confirm the existence of private prisons, but said, “I think that every inch of the area he [Shamal] has occupied is a prison for the local people, because he can do anything he wants.”
Worryingly, some analysts see the Pashtun Kot situation as part of a much broader trend. They argue that the militia commanders who were dominant in the early to mid-Nineties are once again emerging as a powerful force in the north, taking advantage of the weakness of central government.
“The government and human rights organisations have claimed that the situation is improving, but in reality the commanders are gradually gaining the upper hand, and the government can’t do anything about it,” said Mohammad Nabi Aseer, a journalist and analyst in northern Afghanistan.
“The government is unable to combat the Taleban, and it is afraid that if it alienates the [northern] commanders, they might turn into an even more powerful enemy.”
Aseer said disarmament programmes had not worked, and that most of the factions-turned-parties retained a paramilitary wing, a factor that encouraged central government to do nothing.
“In reality, leaders of political parties obtain power in government via these military wings,” he said. “Taking action against local commanders would entail taking action against their leaders in Kabul. [President Hamed] Karzai’s government does not have the power to do this. Commander Shamal is a good example.”
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.
On vacation in Afghanistan
But it sure is beautiful country...