Behind the shame and silence
KABUL - His phone finally rang.
It was probably my 18th or 19th attempt. I was sitting in the garden of AFP’s Kabul bureau for better mobile reception, trying desperately to reach a father in the remote Uruzgan province. His “beautiful” teenage son, local elders told me, had been snatched by a police commander to be his sex slave.
I had nearly given up when the call finally went through, a jangling Islamic ringtone replacing the “number not reachable” message in Pashto I had become weary of hearing.
But to my dismay, when he answered, he refused to talk -- perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of shame. “Your report won’t change anything,” he said over the scratchy line, before hanging up.
Listening to the birds warbling in the trees, I came to a sobering realisation. I was trying to break through an invisible wall of silence. As a journalist I have never felt more alone in the quest of a story. A story that no one wants to talk about. A story shrouded in a miasma of shame.
Over the next few months, this scenario played itself out multiple times as I searched for victims of child sex abuse. But I felt I had to keep going. The story had to be told.
Just a few weeks earlier, in the summer of 2016, I had reported on how the Taliban were using boy sex slaves as Trojan Horses to kill their abusers in police ranks — a perverse kind of double victimisation of children by Afghanistan’s warring parties.
The report, an AFP exclusive, triggered a flurry of reaction.
President Ashraf Ghani launched a "thorough investigation”, vowing zero tolerance for child abuse by Afghan forces.
It sparked reinvigorated calls from American lawmakers to end institutionalised “bacha bazi”, the sexual enslavement of boys by US-funded Afghan forces, with some pushing for targeted sanctions against guilty policemen.
In private, some angry officials accused me of “trying to bring Afghanistan a bad name”. But that’s another story.
Spectacularly absent in the conversations was the plight of the enslaved children, their families, and the official efforts —- or the lack thereof —- to rescue them from their abusers.
“Rescue to where?” a Western official told me at a private gathering in Kabul.
“Europe is imploding,” he said, referring to the migrant crisis afflicting the continent.
My jaw dropped. I found this justification for inaction extremely troubling.
When I tried to find help from the diplomatic community for a child slave I encountered in a forsaken corner of Uruzgan — a slight boy with sad, milky eyes held by a police commander for two years — all I got were shrugs.
The essence of what I was told was: This is their culture. Dealing with the worsening conflict was the main priority; child abuse would have to wait.
It was this stupefying indifference that propelled me to begin a months-long search spanning three Afghan provinces for the victims and their families.
The testimonies, gathered mostly from southern Helmand but also neighboring Uruzgan and northern Baghlan province, offered a disquieting postscript to my first investigation. The testimonies, many of them disturbingly similar, offered a rare window into the helpless, solitary struggles of Afghan families to free sons, nephews and cousins from an entrenched tradition of culturally sanctioned enslavement and rape.
Significantly, they shed light on where these child sex slaves come from. A common theory has been that poor families sell them to powerful commanders or that some willingly choose a life of servitude, lured by the prospect of gifts or easy cash.
But the 13 testimonies I gathered highlighted a hidden epidemic of kidnappings.
The boys were mostly abducted in broad daylight — from their homes, opium farms and playgrounds.
Powerful police commanders — who should be the ones disciplining the perpetrators — are themselves kidnapping boys. That leaves no hope for the stricken families in a system with no specific law against bacha bazi, no mechanism for redress and apparently no official will to act against abusive policemen who are seen as the lesser of two evils in the fight against the Taliban.
“Where should we go for help?” one Helmand man whose teenage brother-in-law had been taken told me. “The Taliban?”
The practice of bacha bazi, not widely seen as homosexual or unIslamic behavior, has spurred a violent culture of one-upmanship within police ranks, as officers jealously compete to snatch the most beautiful boys.
Many compete for boys “who have not seen the sun for years”, a euphemism for unblemished beauty, a former top Helmand security official told me. In a society where the genders are tightly corralled, the possession of pretty young boys dressed effeminately can be a mark of social status, power and masculinity.
That has prompted some parents to dress their boys in dirty, mud-stained clothes to buffer them from prowling policemen.
“Rampant bacha bazi is ruining our society,” a Helmand activist told me. “Our children grow up believing that raping boys is normal."
Some of the policemen are known to publicly flaunt their spoils.
The most heartbreaking testimony came from Sardarwali, who after months of fruitless searching caught a glimpse of his kidnapped son in a crowded marketplace in Helmand's Gereshk district, where I found the largest number of cases.
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 told me. "His mother is crazed with grief. She cannot stop crying: 'We have lost our son forever.'"
The agony of losing a child to sexual slavery is compounded by concerns that in captivity the 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 Taliban. Or get killed in the crossfire as insurgents overrun the checkpoints where they are held.
"Often the only escape for enslaved bachas is to make a deal with the Taliban: 'Liberate me and I will help you get my abuser's head and weapons'," the official added, referring to insider attacks.
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 – and disposed to repeating the same cycle of abuse.
But most families I interviewed have abandoned all hope. Only one lucky family from Helmand managed to extricate their 11-year-old boy after 18 days of captivity – with the help of a powerful intelligence official.
"The family wanted justice but my advice was, 'Flee Helmand or they will come back for your boy'," the intelligence official told me. "Bacha bazi is not a crime that attracts punishment."
After weeks of searching, an AFP team met the boy in a remote, undisclosed location in southern Afghanistan where he lives in virtual hiding two years after his ordeal.
A glassy-eyed teenager struggling to overcome his psychological injuries, he sat mutely beside his father, hunched over a tray of tea and candy, unable to tell the painful story of what his abuser did to him.
Meeting him showed how little psychosocial support there is for such boys, many of them victims of rape.
Overall, the testimonies I gathered are perhaps only a small illustration of a deeply pervasive problem.
Many families were tracked with the help of activists, tribal elders and community leaders. Some families led to other families. But a few in far flung volatile districts were unreachable because of security constraints or poor mobile communication. Some like the Uruzgan father declined to talk.
And some activists who initially offered to help later declined to part with their contacts, fearing they might rankle authorities. They are sitting on that information and doing nothing.
The problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon and most of the victims and their families are unlikely to see any justice. But perhaps there is a bit of hope as the veil of silence shrouding the subject of bacha bazi is lifting.
A local television roundtable was held about my latest report and was unlike any that I have seen in Afghanistan.
Perhaps, just perhaps, silence will no longer be an option.