Tarin Kot, Afghanistan: The Taliban are using child sex slaves to mount crippling insider attacks on police in southern Afghanistan, exploiting the pervasive practice of bacha bazi —paedophilic boy play to infiltrate security ranks, multiple officials and survivors of such assaults said.
The ancient custom is prevalent across Afghanistan, but nowhere does it seem as entrenched as in the province of Uruzgan, where "bacha bereesh" — or boys without beards — widely become objects of lustful attraction for powerful police commanders.
The Taliban over nearly two years have used them to mount a wave of Trojan Horse attacks — at least six between January and April alone — that have killed hundreds of policemen, according to security and judicial officials in the province.
"The Taliban are sending boys — beautiful boys, handsome boys — to penetrate checkpoints and kill, drug and poison policemen," said Ghulam Sakhi Rogh Lewanai, who was Uruzgan's police chief until he was removed in a security reshuffle in April amid worsening violence.
"They have figured out the biggest weakness of police forces — bacha bazi," he told AFP.
The assaults, signifying abuse of children by both parties in the conflict, have left authorities rattled, with one senior provincial official who echoed Rogh Lewanai's view saying "it's easier tackling suicide bombers than bacha attackers".
The killings illustrate how bacha bazi is aggravating insecurity in Uruzgan, a remote province which officials warn is teetering on the brink of collapse, unravelling hard-won gains by US, Australian and Dutch troops who fought there for years.
The insurgents are using bachas as honey traps, said 21-year-old Matiullah, a policeman who was the only survivor from an insider attack in Dehrawud district in spring last year.
He said the attacker was the checkpoint commander's own sex slave, a teenager called Zabihullah. Late one night, he went on a shooting spree, killing seven policemen including the commander as they slept.
"He brought the Taliban inside and poked all the bodies with rifle butts to see if anyone was alive. I pretended to be dead," said Matiullah, who now works as a tailor, pointing out a gash on his forehead.
"As his Taliban accomplices gathered our weapons and ammunition, Zabihullah declared: 'Everyone is dead'."
'Addiction' to boys
The Taliban, who banned bacha bazi during their 1996-2001 rule, roundly denied deploying any underage boys for insider attacks.
"We have a special mujahideen brigade for such operations — all grown men with beards," a Taliban spokesman told AFP.
The insurgents have long denied using children in combat, a claim repeatedly debunked by rights groups and the government.
Survivors of insider attacks who spoke to AFP, including Matiullah, suggest the Taliban are exploiting the institutionalisation of bacha bazi in police ranks for military gain.
Practically all of Uruzgan's 370 local and national police checkpoints have bachas — some up to four — who are illegally recruited not just for sexual companionship but also to bear arms, multiple officials said.
Some policemen, they said, demand bachas like a perk of the job, refusing to join outposts where they are not available.
Horrifying abuse at checkpoints makes the boys, many unpaid and unregistered, hungry for revenge and easy prey for Taliban recruitment — often because there is no other escape from exploitative commanders.
Many who have tried to escape have been dragged back with trumped up charges of Taliban links, two senior provincial judges told AFP.
Boys have also spurred a deadly rivalry between policemen, with officials reporting incidents such as a public gunfight this year between two commanders in Gezab district as one of them angrily accused the other of "stealing" his bacha.
"To restore security in Uruzgan, we will first have to separate policemen from their bachas," one of the judges said.
"But if they are told to reform their ways, a common reply is: 'If you force me to abandon my boy lover, I will also abandon the checkpoint'. The Taliban are not blind to notice that this addiction is worse than opium."
Bacha bazi, which the US State Department has called a "culturally sanctioned form of male rape", peels away the masculine identity of boys in a society where the sexes are tightly segregated.
In conservative areas women are mostly invisible in public — and often unattainable due to steep bride prices. Bachas supplant the role of women, adopting a feminine gait and sometimes wearing makeup and bells on their feet.
Many in Uruzgan see bacha bazi neither as paedophilia nor homosexuality, which is forbidden in Islam. If social norms had a pecking order, violating boys would be seen as far more ethical than violating women.
"Bacha bazi is pervasive sexual slavery of children, seen widely as a cultural practice and not a crime," Charu Lata Hogg, a director at London-based charity Child Soldiers International, told AFP.
"Since it is mostly practised by those in positions of power — warlords, commanders, politicians — it is hard to stamp out. It appears sustained partly by the fact that access to women is limited."
Insider attacks by child slaves have also been reported in recent years from neighbouring Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where bacha bazi is prevalent.
But the tactic appears more deep rooted in Uruzgan, where the boys are widely flaunted as a totem of affluence, with some officials openly displaying cellphone images to AFP of their "handsome bachas".
"Come see my beautiful bacha," said Naqibullah, a police commander in Dehjawze village near the provincial capital Tarin Kot, boasting that he had been holding the teenager for two years.
With a touch of kohl on his eyes, and bleached blond curly hair poking out of his embroidered hat, the boy sat in a corner of the checkpoint surrounded by opium farms, quietly refilling tea glasses for Naqibullah's guests.
"Commanders prowl neighbourhoods for young boys. We are scared of dressing up our children or buying new clothes that will make them attractive," said Nader Khan, a tribal elder in Dehrawud.
Khan's 13-year-old nephew was taken captive earlier this year by Naqibullah, a local commander not related to the Dehjawze official, when his family sent him to deliver bread for policemen. He was released only after angry tribal elders besieged the governor's office in Tarin Kot.
Governor Mohammad Nazir Kharoti told AFP he ordered Naqibullah's arrest but he was released in less than a month because he was needed for combat duty.
"It is difficult to implement the law 100 percent when we are faced with a war situation," Kharoti said, without elaborating on the case.
Afghanistan's interior ministry refused to confirm or deny that bachas were being used in insurgent attacks, but said it was committed to police reforms and acknowledged that "bacha bazi within the ranks of police is a serious crime".
The practice has put the United States and its NATO allies, who have spent billions of dollars to build Afghan forces, in a precarious position.
The US Congress last year voiced concern over "predatory sexual behaviour by Afghan soldiers and police", prompting watchdog agency SIGAR to launch an investigation that is still ongoing.
The head of a government affiliated agency in Uruzgan showed AFP two letters from the attorney general in Kabul, one last year and another dated January, ordering a separate probe into sexual abuse and the illegal recruitment of child conscripts.
"We haven't been able to visit even one checkpoint to investigate," he said, speaking in hushed whispers in his own office.
"Do you think police commanders will leave us alive if we probe their crimes?"
How widespread is 'Bacha Bazi'?
"Women are for child-rearing, boys are for pleasure" is a common saying across many parts of Afghanistan.
The ancient custom, banned under the Taliban's 1996-2001 rule, has seen a resurgence in recent years. It is said to be widespread across southern and eastern Afghanistan's rural Pashtun heartland, and with ethnic Tajiks across the northern countryside.
Powerful warlords, commanders, politicians and other members of the elite often keep "bachas" as a symbol of authority and affluence.
Bachas, dressed as women, are widely used by these men as dancers at private parties and are sexually exploited.
Bacha bazi is not widely seen as homosexual behaviour — popularly demonised as a deviant sexual act, prohibited in Islam — and is largely accepted as a cultural practice.
How has it been allowed to flourish?
Tight gender segregation in Afghan society and lack of contact with women have contributed to the spread of bacha bazi, rights groups say.
Several other factors such as an absence of the rule of law, corruption, limited access to justice, illiteracy, poverty, insecurity, and the existence of armed groups have also resulted in the spread of bacha bazi, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said in a report in 2014.
AIHRC points out that Afghanistan’s criminal law prohibits rape and pederasty, but there are no clear provisions on bacha bazi.
"There is a gap and ambiguity in the laws of Afghanistan regarding bacha bazi and the existing laws do not address the problem sufficiently," the report said.
"Many of the perpetrators have connections with the security organs and by using power and giving bribes they get exempted from punishment."
Where do the boys come from? And what happens to them afterwards?
Bachas are typically aged between 10 and 18. Sometimes they are kidnapped, says AIHRC, but often desperate poverty drives their families to sell them to abusers.
"The victims of bacha bazi suffer from serious psychological trauma as they often get raped," AIHRC's report said.
"Such victims suffer from stress and a sort of distrust, hopelessness and pessimistic feeling. Bacha bazi results in fear among the children and a feeling of revenge and hostility develop in their mind."
In turn, many adolescent victims are said to grow up to have boy lovers of their own, repeating the cycle of abuse.
"In the absence of any services to recover or rehabilitate boys who are caught in this horrendous abuse, it's hard to know what happens to these children," said Charu Lata Hogg, a director at London-based charity Child Soldiers International.
"We have heard anecdotal reports that many grow up to keep their own bachas, perpetuating the revolving door of abuse."
How is bacha bazi impacting Afghanistan's security situation?
Bacha bazi is having a detrimental bearing on the perpetual state of conflict in Afghanistan, helping the Taliban to infiltrate security ranks in provinces such as Uruzgan, officials say.
The abusive practice in security ranks also undermines support for NATO-trained Afghan forces.
"To date, the US has provided over $60 billion in assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), including nearly $500 million to the Afghan Local Police," the US Congress said in December.
"Predatory sexual behaviour by Afghan soldiers and police could undermine US and Afghan public support for the ANDSF, and put our enormous investment at risk."
The practice also continues to embolden the Taliban's desire to reassert sharia law in Afghanistan and is fuelling their insurgency.
"Such wild abuses of the predatory mujahideen forces in the early 1990s drove the popularity of the austere Taliban, helping them sweep to power across most of the country. Similar behaviour of the government forces after 2001 is also helping to inspire the insurgency," a Western official in Kabul told AFP.
Published Date: Jun 16, 2016 11:57 AM | Updated Date: Jun 16, 2016 11:57 AM