The 9-year-old boy with pale skin and big, piercing eyes captivated Mirzahan at first sight.
“He is more handsome than anyone in the village,” the 22-year-old farmer said, explaining why he is grooming the boy as a sexual partner and companion. There was another important factor that made Waheed easy to take on as a bacha bazi, or a boy for pleasure: “He doesn’t have a father, so there is no one to stop this.”
A growing number of Afghan children are being coerced into a life of sexual abuse. The practice of wealthy or prominent Afghans exploiting underage boys as sexual partners who are often dressed up as women to dance at gatherings is on the rise in post-Taliban Afghanistan, according to Afghan human rights researchers, Western officials and men who participate in the abuse.
“Like it or not, there was better rule of law under the Taliban,” said Dee Brillenburg Wurth, a child-protection expert at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, who has sought to persuade the government to address the problem. “They saw it as a sin, and they stopped a lot of it.”
Over the past decade, the phenomenon has flourished in Pashtun areas in the south, in several northern provinces and even in the capital, according to Afghans who engage in the practice or have studied it. Although issues such as women’s rights and moral crimes have attracted a flood of donor aid and activism in recent years, bacha bazi remains poorly understood.
The State Department has mentioned the practice — which is illegal here, as it would be in most countries — in its annual human rights reports. The 2010 report said members of Afghanistan’s security forces, who receive training and weapons from the U.S.-led coalition, sexually abused boys “in an environment of criminal impunity.”
But by and large, foreign powers in Afghanistan have refrained from drawing attention to the issue. There are no reliable statistics on the extent of the problem.
“It is very sensitive and taboo in Afghanistan,” said Hayatullah Jawad, head of the Afghan Human Rights Research and Advocacy Organization, who is based in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. “There are a lot of people involved in this case, but no one wants to talk about it.”
A recent interview with Mirzahan and a handful of his friends who sexually exploit boys provided a rare glimpse into the lives of men who have taken on bacha bazi.
The men agreed to be interviewed together in a mud hut in this tiny village in Balkh province, accessible only by narrow, unpaved roads and just a few miles from areas where the Taliban is fighting the government for dominance. The men insisted that only their first names be used. Although the practice of bacha bazi has become something of an open secret in Afghanistan, it is seldom discussed in public or with outsiders.
Sitting next to the 9-year-old Waheed, who was wearing a pink pants-and-tunic set called a shalwar kameez, Mirzahan said he opted to take on the boy because marrying a woman would have been prohibitively expensive. The two have not had sex, Mirzahan said, but that will happen in a few years. For now, Waheed is being introduced to slightly older “dancing boys.”
“He is not dancing yet, but he is willing,” Mirzahan said with pride.
Asked how he felt about becoming a dancing boy, Waheed responded shyly.
“I feel so happy,” the boy said. “They are so beautiful.”
Sitting nearby was 23-year-old Assadula, who said he’s an Afghan soldier assigned to a unit in the southern province of Kandahar. Assadula said he has been attracted to teenage males for as long as he can recall. Two years ago, he took on a 16-year-old as his bacha. The relationship will end soon, he said, sitting next to his companion, Jawad, who is now 18.
“When he starts growing a beard, his time will expire, and I will try to find another one who doesn’t have a beard,” Assadula said.
Many of the men who have bachas are also married. But Assadula said he has never been attracted to women.
“You cannot take wives everywhere with you,” he said, referring to the gender segregation in social settings that is traditional in Afghanistan. “You cannot take a wife with you to a party, but a boy you can take anywhere.”
Boys who become bachas are seen as property, said Jawad, the human rights researcher. Those who are perceived as being particularly beautiful can be sold for tens of thousands of dollars. The men who control them sometimes rent them out as dancers at male-only parties, and some are prostituted.
“This is abuse,” Jawad said. “Most of these children are not willing to do this. They do this for money. Their families are very poor.”
Although the practice is thought to be more widespread in conservative rural areas, it has become common in Kabul. Mohammed Fahim, a videographer who films the lavish weddings in the capital, estimated that one in every five weddings he attends in Kabul features dancing boys.
Authorities are well aware of the phenomenon, he said, as he played a video of a recent party that featured an underage boy with heavy makeup shaking his shoulders seductively as men sitting on the floor clapped and smiled.
“Police come because they like it a lot,” Fahim said, referring to parties with dancing boys.
When the boys age beyond their prime and get tossed aside, many become pimps or prostitutes, said Afghan photojournalist Barat Ali Batoor, who spent months chronicling the plight of dancing boys. Some turn to drugs or alcohol, he said.
“In Afghan society, if you are raped or you are abused, you will not have space in society to live proudly,” he said.
When Batoor completed his project on dancing boys, he assumed that nongovernmental organizations would be eager to exhibit his work and raise awareness of the issue. To his surprise, none were.
“They said: ‘We don’t want to make enemies in Afghanistan,’ ” he said, summarizing the general response.
Afghan men have exploited boys as sexual partners for generations, people who have studied the issue say. The practice became rampant during the 1980s, when mujaheddin commanders fighting Soviet forces became notorious for recruiting young boys while passing through villages. In Kandahar during the mid-1990s, the Taliban was born in part out of public anger that local commanders had married bachas and were engaging in other morally licentious behavior.
Afghanistan’s legal codes are based mainly on sharia, or Islamic law, which strictly prohibits sodomy. The law also bars sex before marriage. Under Afghan law, men must be at least 18 years old and women 16 to marry.
During the Taliban era, men suspected of having sex with men or boys were executed. In the late 1990s, amid the group’s repressive reign, the practice of bacha bazi went underground. The fall of the Taliban government in late 2001 and the flood of donor money that poured into Afghanistan revived the phenomenon.
Wurth, the U.N. official, who is leaving Kabul soon after three years of work on child-welfare issues in Afghanistan, said the lack of progress on combating the sexual exploitation of children is her biggest regret. Foreign powers have done little to conduct thorough research or advocate for policy reforms, she said.
“It’s rampant in certain areas,” Wurth said. “But more than that we can’t say. Nobody has facts and figures.”
Wurth said she was encouraged by recent discussions with Afghan government officials, who she said have begun to acknowledge the problem and have expressed concern about the rising popularity of the practice. The sexual exploitation of boys recruited to the Afghan police force was one of the reasons it was added in 2010 to a U.N. list of armed groups that recruit underage fighters, Wurth said.
But, so far, the government has taken few meaningful steps to discourage the abuse of bachas. Wurth said she was not aware of any prosecutions.
“A kid who is being sexually exploited, if he reports it, he will end up in prison,” she said. “They become pariahs.”