The prevalence of Bachi Bazi in Afghanistan is not well known. The term’s literal translation is “playing with boys.” Male children, in the phase preceding puberty, are sought out for a specific purpose. To be dressed in women’s clothing; taught to dance and sing; to be called upon to perform sexual acts.
When filmmaker/journalist Najibullah Quaraishi became aware of the revived pervasiveness of this “custom,” he determined that it was a narrative that had to be told.
Under the pretext of doing a documentary about young boys being bought by older men around the world, Quaraishi was able to embed himself with a devout Muslim and the father of two small sons, named Dastager. He is a former member of the Northern Alliance, who currently earns a lucrative living importing automobiles. Dastager guides Quaraishi through a sub-culture built on the demand of affluent, well-connected men for young boys. One of the early sequences in the documentary depicts Quarashi accompanying Dastager on a search to find “a poor boy who is eleven, but looks about nine.”
To gain insights into the multitude of diverse conditions that contribute to Bacha Bazi, I contacted Quaraishi to get greater insight and backstory. He responded via e-mail:
You were exiled from Afghanistan in 2002, after being severely beaten. Can you discuss what motivated you to return to the country in the role of both journalist and filmmaker, to profile the practice of “Bacha Bazi.”
I had been beaten while investigating the story of the massacre of over 2,000 Taliban prisoners at Sheberghan by the forces of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and involving CIA personnel and US Special Forces. This is a story that the US authorities have tried to keep quiet for over a decade now. Not only was I beaten, but a warrant was issued for my arrest—along with Jamie Doran. We sent the film crew back to London, and Jamie and I went into hiding for some days as I didn’t have the necessary exit papers to get out of Afghanistan. We have been back in Afghanistan several times since and it was on one of those trips that I was invited to a party where boys were dancing. It didn’t look suspicious until the boys began disappearing with men near the end of the performance. I began investigating and that’s what led to our film on Bacha Bazi. I was disgusted by what I found and, after telling Jamie, we decided it must be exposed.
There are many overlapping and intertwined topics addressed in The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, which presents a multi-layered set of realities. These include not only the sexual slavery of minor boys in Afghanistan, but the political threads as well. Bacha Bazi was banned by the Taliban, but is now practiced with impunity by former members of the Northern Alliance. Can you comment on this?
There is no question that the highest authorities in Afghanistan are aware of the practice. When challenged about this by a UN official, even President Karzai remarked, “Let us win the war first. Then we will deal with such matters”. That’s the general attitude: sweep it under the carpet and keep it there for as long as possible. But it is wrong, terribly wrong. When our film was shown in Afghanistan, the feeling of national embarrassment was huge. Like the president and his colleagues, everyone knows it is going on but no one wants it made public.
Economics and class impact sexual slavery in Afghanistan, as in other parts of the world. The “recruitment of children” into the sex trade is geared to seeking out orphans who are destitute, or impoverished families who might sell their sons to survive. How interwoven is the abuse and rape of Afghan boys with the economics of Afghanistan?
This is a very important point. Bacha Bazi could not exist without poverty. These innocent little boys are either sold by their parents or lured off the streets they are begging on with the promise of a better life. It is disgraceful that my country is even poorer today than it was in 2001. With all the tens-of-billions of dollars that have gone into the country, I want to know where it all went. It certainly did not go to the ordinary people and it is too easy just to blame Kabul government corruption for everything. There is massive corruption; of that there is no doubt. But that corruption is international, involving many who are not Afghan. Those who have stolen this money, whoever they are, are at least partly to blame for every young boy whose life is destroyed by Bacha Bazi.
Although Bacha Bazi is “illegal” in Afghanistan, officials refuse to act on the illicit sex trade. For those who can’t afford to buy children, DVDs are sold openly on the street. United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, noted in the film that the attitude in Afghanistan is, “Let’s not talk about it.” If the legal system isn’t working, the police are complicit, and powerful former commanders in the Northern Alliance are fueling demand, what do you see as the next step?
I have addressed this point in part above, certainly in terms of official connivance. As to the next step, there is really only one possible solution in the short-term—and that is for world leaders to put such immense pressure on the Kabul administration that, however reluctantly, they MUST take action against the perpetrators. Severe sentences in what are very rough Afghan prisons might make at least some of these abusers think twice. Long-term, there is no doubt that the issue of poverty, particularly in the countryside, must be tackled.
Many viewers may have difficulty in parsing out the issues of power, sexuality, and the role of women in Afghan society. Mothers have no say about the fate of their male children who may be offered for sale. They have limited status as wives. As the mother of a murdered boy states about her son’s fate, “Power is power.” Can you address where on the continuum the practice of Bacha Bazi falls? Is it about power, pedophilia, misogyny, or another root cause?
I believe that the central issue is one of power. These men who abuse little boys clearly enjoy the feeling of absolute power they have over them. It is most certainly not to do with homosexuality: if young girls were more readily available in Afghanistan, then I have no doubt they would be the first targets. When you say that “mothers have no say about the fate of their male children”, you are almost right, but not entirely. While in the countryside this may be an accurate description; the growing middle-class in Afghanistan has seen a relative leap in the influence of mothers in the home. Indeed, this takes me back to the central theme of poverty. It may be obvious to state, but it is also important: Females born into financially secure households not only benefit from better education but, as a direct result, they are afforded greater respect—leading to a significant power shift within their families. The education of young girls should be recognized as an absolute imperative in the effort to change attitudes across Afghanistan.
What future do you see for mobilizing against the practice of Bacha Bazi in Afghanistan?
I must confess that I am extremely pessimistic. The international forces will leave my country in a worse state than when they first arrived. Of that I have no doubt. I see civil war almost as a certainty, and the rest of the world will no longer be concerned with the carnage—which to a good degree—it is responsible for. Western soldiers will no longer be dying on a daily basis and, frankly, who will care any more about the deaths of Afghans after 2014? Can we honestly believe that, in this likely scenario, combating the abuse of poor children will be a priority?
This article originally appeared on the website cultureID.