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Ignored by society, Afghan dancing boys suffer centuries-old tradition

By Atia Abawi, CNN
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Afghan sex trade
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Young boys in Afghanistan are used as sex slaves through "bacha bazi" or "boy play"
  • Human rights group: Problem is not appreciated or accepted by society
  • Issue has very little profile in a country torn apart by war and conflict
  • One teen was 13 when his neighbor made him watch a sex tape, then raped him
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Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- A young boy dressed in women's clothing, his face caked in make-up, dances the night away for a crowd of men.

The bells on his feet chime away, mimicking the entertainment and sexual appeal of female dancers. But there is no mistaking his pubescent body and face as he concentrates, focusing on every step in order to please his master and his master's guests.

This all played out in a video that CNN obtained from a person involved in the parties.

The boy is but one youth among many throughout the country forced into an age-old underground tradition known as "bacha bazi," or "boy play," in which young boys are taken from their families, made to dance and used as sex slaves by powerful men. The number of boys involved is unknown -- the practice has been going on for centuries, in a country where such practices are overshadowed by conflict and war.

"It's pretty much unappreciated by [the] society, unaccepted and illegal," said Mohammad Musa Mahmodi of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, one of the few organizations in the country working to end "bacha bazi."

Islamic scholars have denounced "bacha bazi" as immoral but the practice continues in Afghanistan, where the government is in the throes of an increasingly bloody battle with insurgent Taliban militants and is also working to recover from decades of conflict.

The abuse stays on the backburner of issues in Afghanistan. People are aware of it, but they don't really talk about it. Almost everyone in the country is coping with some level of injustice, and they are just trying to survive.

It is widely known among the population that, most of the time it is commanders, high-ranking officials and their friends who partake in the abuse of the boys.

"It continues because of the culture of impunity and lack of legal provision against this practice," Mahmodi explained.

Farhad,19, and Jamel, 20, are two grown dancers who were forced into "bacha bazi" about five years ago.

Farhad was 13 when his older neighbor tricked him into coming to his home. He was made to watch a sex tape and then raped. After the brutal assault, he was taken to another location where he was locked up and used as a sex slave for five months.

"I got used to him," Farhad said, trying to explain why he stayed with his neighbor after the traumatizing experience.

"He would sometimes take me to parties, and sometimes other places. I was with him all the time," he said.

In Afghan society the victims of rape and assault --- both male and female --- are often persecuted and punished rather than the perpetrator. The shame forces boys like Farhad to continue in leading such lifestyles, even when they have the chance to break away.

Jamel, Farhad's friend and dance partner, is now married but he was the "bacha bereesh" -- or "boy without a beard" -- of a powerful warlord who has since left the country. He said the only reason he continues to dance is to provide for his younger brothers and sisters.

"I make them study, dress them, feed them. Any money I make I spend on my family. I don't want them to be like this, be like me," he said, brushing his shoulder length hair away from his eyes, framing his thin oval face.

Farhad and Jamel say their families know what is going on now but are powerless to stop it -- in fact they need the money and income they make.

Both Jamel and Farhad look and act more like women than men, a trait that can be deadly in Afghanistan's male-dominated society. Even the police can't be counted on for protection.

Farhad said that he was taken from a party by four police officers one night and almost gang raped at the station Before their commander walked in and stopped the assault. But then, "He said if I wanted to be set free I should give him my money and my mobile," Farhad said. "I had no real choice, so I gave him my money and mobile."

The boys said they are continuously threatened, beaten and raped by men who attend the parties they dance at; parties fueled by alcohol and drugs.

"The nights we go out, we are scared," said, Jamel, who is the more talkative of the pair and the one who more resembles a woman. "We always think about how we will be able to get out without someone attacking us."

Despite the dangers, they continue to dance, making $30 for the night -- a night that usually ends in assault -- because they say it is the only thing they know and their only way to make money. There are no opportunities in Afghanistan for people like them.

And once branded as men who danced as women, there is no turning back.

"We are not happy with this line of work," Jamel said. "We say that it would be better if God could just kill us rather than living like this."

 
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