Indirectly, Frontline will be asking that very question on April 20 with an underground report on the resurgence of bacha bazi or “boy play” among the wealthiest and most powerful men in northern Afghanistan. It’s the pustule threatening to burst all over the righteousness of our humanitarian effort there, and just the tip of the sick fact of how poor Afghan children are systematically used, abused, and tossed away by the ruling elite and even Afghan soldiers living, training, and fighting alongside our own.
Bacha bazi is an old Afghan tradition of taking young boys, dressing them up like girls, and making them perform for older men in tea rooms, weddings, and other private venues. The boys are “owned” by single or married men who trade or keep the boys as concubines. According to reports, the boys’ ages range from eight to 19, when they “age out” of the practice and are released.
“The bacha dancers are often abused children whose families have rejected them,” said the Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, whowrote about the practice in September. He described one boy who was sexually assaulted by a mechanic in his town. The boy’s family blamed him and turned him out. He was forced to live with the man who attacked him. “Now I am with someone else, and he taught me how to dance,” the boy, now 16 years old, said.
Other reports describe bacha bazi as an increasingly lucrative business, in which the boy slaves are seen as important status symbols of the elite. “Everyone tries to have the best, most handsome, and good-looking boy,” a former mujahedin commandertold Reuters back in 2007.
A 42-year-old landowner in Baghlan province named Enayatullah told Reuters, “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 and entertaining with my young boy.”
The boys, who often know no other life but as chattel, call the men “my lord.” Attempting escape could result in severe physical punishment, or even death. The family of a dead 15-year-old boy told Frontline that a policeman was eventually thrown in jail in connection with his murder. But they believed the boy’s former owner, a wealthy drug baron whom he was escaping, bribed local officials to set the policeman free after only “a few months” of jail time.
“If only these people were punished, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen,” the boy’s mother said. “Whoever commits these crimes doesn’t get punished. Power is power.”
I remember the first time I ever heard of bacha bazi. A soldier friend of mine who had been in Kabul told me of a disconcerting evening when he stumbled into a tea room in which a group of well-dressed Afghan men were gathering. His Afghan interpreter yanked him by the arm and out of the place, warning of danger. That was bacha bazi, he explained, in which young boys are forced to dance for men. He had better move on and forget.
He moved on, but he never forgot. Like me, my friend had grown up in a working class New England town, and these were horrors that men were beaten and even killed for in prison. We call it pedophilia, and most here would say is worth an eternity of damnation for its perpetrators, not a high social rank and adulation among the town’s elite.
“It’s gotten limited attention,” admitted Rachel Reid of Human Rights Watch. “There’s been some Afghan investigative journalists who have tackled it, though in areas where the perpetrators are also local ‘commanders’ whether official or unofficial, there will always be fear of reprisals.”
Approaching the issue as Americans we are flummoxed, as if it occurs on another planet. Reprisals for exposing the sexual abuse of children? The Catholic Church spent more than a half-century hiding its abusive priests because it feared that reprisals from the outside might destroy the institution. Here, we have authority figures – former commanders and warlords – flaunting their dancing slave boys, practically daring interference from outside.