Qadam Shah, 32, had a lot going for him before the Taliban came. He advocated for children’s rights in an international agency, worked in various government departments and served in the military.
But in August 2021, when the Taliban retook Afghanistan, Shah was numb with fear. He worked with the government, whose members were being executed or disappeared under the new Islamic Emirate. He is a part of the country where residents are still resisting Taliban rule. He is also gay.
“I always hid my LGBT identity because it’s always been a crime in Afghanistan,” Shah told VICE World News over WhatsApp from an undisclosed location in the country. All queer Afghans, including Shah, requested the use of pseudonyms out of fear for their safety in and outside Afghanistan. “Now in the Taliban regime, there is only one way they treat someone like me: death.”
Since August last year, Shah had been on the run, changing locations every other month. In July, when he went to his hometown to visit family, armed Taliban men barged into his home. “They called me a slur for LGBTQ based on my effeminate appearance, and started hitting my head with the butt of their guns,” he said. Shah fainted, he said, and when he regained consciousness, he found himself in the hospital with marks of torture and beatings all over his body.
The new Taliban regime has thrown the country into chaos and uncertainty, with the UN Mission in Afghanistan reporting an erosion of basic human rights with extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions. For the country’s LGBTQ people, who had always had to hide their gender identity and sexual orientation, the Taliban regime became even more dangerous.
“In the Taliban regime, there is only one way they treat someone like me: death.”
The Taliban prohibit same-sex relations, and offenders were executed during the Islamist group’s previous rule from 1996 to 2001. Under the U.S.-backed former government, homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment, but many queer people interviewed for this article said they felt relatively safe as long as they went about their queer lives in private. But with the Taliban at the helm, they say their lives are now in danger.
Last year, a Taliban judge told a German news outlet that he prescribed two kinds of punishment for gay men: stoning or having a 3-metre-high wall fall on them.
“The Taliban regime is truly the dark ages for Afghan LGBTQ people,” Shir, a 21-year-old artist, told VICE World News from Kabul. Shir is gay, and he said many queer Afghans aren’t stepping out of their homes, even to buy groceries, for the fear of being accosted by the Taliban. “Many in our community are just waiting for their deaths,” he said.
Shir said he himself has been beaten up and tortured four times over the last few months, and his peers are facing the same, sometimes worse, forms of violence. “Someone I know died after the Taliban poured boiling water into his mouth,” he said. Shir, who organises resources and help for queer Afghans, said queer people are also being blamed for monkeypox, leading to more persecution.
Lynne O’Donnell, an Australian journalist detained by Taliban officials on a reporting trip last month, said the Taliban accused her of falsifying reports about Afghanistan, including one about LGBTQ people in the country, and asked her to give up her sources.
“One of the Taliban officials interrogating me told me that there are no gay people in Afghanistan, and if there are, they’d kill them,” O’Donnell told VICE World News. She refused to reveal her interviewees to the Taliban.
“Afghanistan is conservative, but there was always a bit of liberalism to their religiosity,” said O’Donnell, who had worked in Afghanistan as bureau chief for the Associated Press and AFP between 2009 and 2017. “Things are certainly more extreme now.”
Since August 2021, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have fled to neighbouring countries, with a minority of them being LGBTQ Afghans. Last month, a BBC report documented a mission by the U.K. government along with U.K. charities to rescue 31 LGBTQ Afghans. In Canada, a charity is urging the government to streamline processes to get LGBTQ refugees in the country.
The risks many queer Afghans face by staying in the country are stacked miles high, but it’s close to impossible to leave.
“Humanitarian visas for Afghan refugees are scarcer than the rarest resources in this world,” Nemat Sadat, an Afghan author who has been advocating for LGBTQ rights for Afghans for nearly a decade, told VICE World News. Sadat has a list of over 1,000 queer Afghans waiting to be resettled abroad, but since the Taliban occupation, he said he was only able to help 130 people. Many of them are in Canada. Sadat believes the world’s singular focus on Russia’s war on Ukraine diverted crucial resources away from vulnerable Afghans.
“Humanitarian visas for Afghan refugees are scarcer than the rarest resources in this world.”
“The Ukraine war changed everything, and we really got to see the true faces of the international community who didn’t think twice about sending resources for the people of Ukraine, but when it came to Afghans, there wasn’t much they could do.”
Despite the many evacuations, the country of nearly 40 million continues to see many more fleeing to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan every day. Many carry the scars of torture they faced back home.
Bilal Saraj, a gay Afghan who managed to cross over to Pakistan in March, recalled a “kill list” created by the Taliban made up of LGBTQ activists like him. “I was the first on that list,” the 27-year-old, who also requested a pseudonym for his safety, told VICE World News from an undisclosed location in Pakistan. “According to them, I was a ‘chucha’ – a slur for homosexuals – and they were blaming me for encouraging young people to be homosexuals.”
Saraj said he was captured last August by Taliban officials, who took him to an unknown location and tortured him for days. “They tied my hands and legs to an iron rod and threw ice water on my head every night while trying to film my ‘confession’ that I’m gay,” he said. “This was for the judge who would order a wall be thrown on me or have me executed in public.” He also said he was hit with cable lines, sticks and the butt of a gun.
“They tied my hands and legs to an iron rod and threw ice water on my head every night while trying to film my ‘confession’ that I’m gay.”
“Then one evening, they beat me so much that I fell down like a dead person,” he said. The officials went to sleep, presumably thinking Saraj was too weak to get up. Saraj took that opportunity to escape. Today, in Pakistan, Saraj is still in hiding. “Once the Taliban has an order against you, your life is destroyed. You’re not safe anywhere,” he said.
A series of 60 interviews with LGBTQ Afghans released by Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International this year confirmed the increasing and targeted attacks on the country’s queer people.
Sara, a non-binary gay Afghan, told VICE World News that they were accosted by Taliban officials outside their apartment in January. “They had knives and guns. They said ‘Shame on you, it’s our time to finish people like you,’” Sara said. They were then stabbed 18 times. “There was one stab near my heart but fortunately it wasn’t so deep,” they said. “I lost consciousness and when I opened my eyes, I was in the emergency room.” Sara is currently in Pakistan awaiting resettlement in a third country.
On several occasions, Afghans outed queer people to Taliban officials. The Human Rights Watch report said some family members, neighbours and romantic partners who support the new regime felt compelled to report LGBTQ people to the Taliban to protect themselves.
Allahyar, a former resident doctor in a Kabul hospital who is now resettled in Canada, suspects that his colleagues ratted him out to the Taliban. On August 28 last year, Allahyar was stopped in the hospital by some armed Taliban men who outed him in front of his colleagues and punched him in the face multiple times.
“They wanted to arrest me but fortunately, a few locals mediated and they didn’t let them take me,” he told VICE World News. “My eye was severely damaged and I got blood clots. My hospital threw me out because of their own prejudices.”
Things aren’t that great for those who managed to resettle in developed countries. Omid, a former university student in Kabul who fled to the U.K. in October, told VICE World News that as a queer person, it’s freeing to be out of Afghanistan since he was constantly using beta blockers to calm his anxiety and suicidal thoughts back in Kabul.
But the 22-year-old is still waiting for his paperwork on his request for asylum, while his family is stuck in Pakistan, facing the same issues. “Things on the refugee front are very slow,” said Omid, who requested a pseudonym to protect his family. “I had to let go of two university offers to continue my studies because I don’t have any paperwork to support my stay here.”
J. Lester Feder, a senior fellow at OutRight Action International and a co-author of the Human Rights Watch report, said the world must not turn a blind eye to the “incredible high risks” Afghans continue to face.
“Resettlement takes months, even years, and we’ve seen how the structures and processes for refugees have been weakening and not restored in many countries, like in the U.S.,” he said. “These need to be a high priority now.”
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