Wealthy former warlords in Baghlan, a northern province of Afghanistan, recruit adolescent boys for sex and entertainment, while local authorities remain powerless in stopping the practice.
A ‘bacha bereesh’ is a boy without a beard, and in several circles a beardless boy is most desired by rich, powerful male patrons. Grown men become involved in ‘bacha bazi’— which literally translates into ‘boy-play’. This is a time-honored tradition, condemned by human rights activists and Muslim clerics, but it is seeing a revival in the north province of Afghanistan. It is by no means restricted to the north of Afghanistan only, but has virtually faded in the south, where the Taliban’s strict moral code act as a deterrent.
The bacha bereesh, between the ages of 14 to 18 (though 14 seems to be the preferred age), are dressed in special women’s clothing, with bells tied to their feet, and paraded out to dance at parties and weddings. In general, the practice of men dancing at parties is relatively common in Afghanistan, where the sexes are strictly segregated and women unallowed to partake in such activity. However, in Baghlan, the former warlords and mujahideen commanders are resurrecting bacha bazi, and holding dance competitions between the boys.
Allah Daad, once a mujahedin commander in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz, explains 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.”
Large halls provide the venues for the weekly parties where the boys’ owners, invite their friends to watch them dancing. Several different types of dances are popular, Daad says, and if the boy refuses to dance or performs badly, his master beats him with a long stick.
"We have to do that,” explains Daad. “We spend money on these boys, so they have to dance.”
Later into the night, once the dancing is over, the boys are frequently shared with close friends, for sexual favors. And by the end of the evening it is not at all uncommon for the boy to have a new owner, as the parties often provide the opportunity for buying and selling.
Both prestige as well as poverty are the main motivators for the revival of bacha bazi.
A beautiful boy who is also the best dancer becomes a status symbol for his master. A man going by the name of Nasro Bay explains how the public ostentation of bacha bazi is a sign of prestige:
“I am not really rich, but I am just as good as the wealthy. I want as many bacha bereesh as possible, so that when I go to parties I am no worse than anybody else.”
He insists that the dancing boy tradition is 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.”
The men are said to lavish money and gifts on their boys. Many claim to love them, and there are cases of boys who are not so dissatisfied with their lifestyle, demeaning as it may seem.
"I was only 14-years-old when a former Uzbek commander forced me to have sex with him," says Shir Mohammad. "Later, I quit my family and became his secretary. I have been with him for 10 years, I am now grown up, but he still loves me and I sleep with him."
But at 24, he is getting far too old to remain a dancing boy.
"I am grown up now and do not have the beauty of former years. So, I proposed to marry my lord's daughter and he has agreed to it."
Ahmad Jawad, 17, has been with a wealthy landowner for the past two years.
"I am used to it. I love my lord. I love to dance and act like a woman and play with my owner," he says. When asked what he would do when he got older, Ahmad says he will be an owner and will have many of his own boys.
Some of the men say they are not interested in women.
“We know it is immoral and unIslamic, but how can we quit?” asks 35 year-old Chaman Gul. “We do not like women, we just want boys.”
But poverty tells a less sentimental story, and remains a huge motivating factor in the boy’s lives. It’s often desperation which drives them into the lifestyle.
“I was dancing last night,” one exhausted-looking 14 year-old boy said, when his owner forced him to speak. “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.”
Mohammad Zaher Zafari, head of the northern branch of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, bemoans 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 says. “It is a despicable culture. The boys involved are usually poor, underage or orphans, and they are forced into it by their economic circumstances.
Indeed, the government has failed to do much about the practice of bacha bazi, and police force do little to encourage public confidence. Local officials do admit the practice is prevalent but seem 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,” says 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 says there is little that prosecutors could do. “The police and district heads won’t cooperate with us,” he complains. “They don’t send us their files, so we can’t take action.”
He says the paramilitary commanders involved are powerful- so powerful that no one, not even the police, is able to rise against them.
But Baghlan chief prosecutor Hafizullah Khaliqyar has more hope, and says those found guilty of abuse would be jailed for at least 15 years.
"We have 25 cases of such immoral acts. They are being processed and we are trying our utmost to tackle the problem," he says.