Earlier this month, Sulaiman ran away from his hometown. He’s from Kunduz, one of the first cities in Afghanistan to fall to the Taliban before the extremist group took over the country on August 15.
Kunduz was briefly occupied by the Taliban in 2015 and 2016, so when Sulaiman read the news that U.S. troops were pulling out of Afghanistan, he bolted.
“I have seen the kind of punishments they gave to people, especially if they’re queer,” Sulaiman told VICE World News from an undisclosed location.
Sulaiman is gay. His name and those of other queer sources in or from Afghanistan in this article have been changed to protect their identity.
Growing up, Sulaiman read news of gay men being forcibly outed and executed in public by the Taliban. “I never saw those killings myself,” he said. “But I read reports and heard people talk about it. Even now, I have not told a single Afghan that I’m gay. I know they will tell the Taliban, and that will be the end of me.”
Sulaiman is on the run and looking for a way to leave the country.
Since Sunday, when chaos erupted after the Taliban declared the re-establishment of its hard-line Islamist regime, thousands of Afghans were seen trying to escape the country. Stampedes at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul are being met with brutal force by both the Taliban and American forces.
“I never saw those killings myself. But I read reports and heard people talk about it. Even now, I have not told a single Afghan that I’m gay. I know they will tell the Taliban, and that will be the end of me.”
LGBTQ+ people have always lived secret lives in Afghanistan because homosexuality is condemned as immoral and un-Islamic. For young Afghans who already have a bloody conflict to live through, queer identities are rarely discussed. Under the Afghan penal code, “pederasty” – a sexual act between two men – was punishable with long imprisonment.
Some Taliban officials previously told the media that gay men would be punished with death under their regime. Sharia laws in other Islamic countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia also ban homosexuality, but their methods of punishment pale in comparison with those of the Taliban, which include stoning, mutilation, and hanging.
Taliban officials have yet to make a statement on LGBTQ+ rights since their August 15 takeover. VICE World News reached out to Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s official spokesperson for international media, with questions. He did not respond. On Twitter yesterday, he stated that the regime wants to give “the Afghan people a prosperous and happy life under the shadow of the Islamic system.”
But anxieties are increasing every day.
Rani, an Afghan woman who is lesbian, told VICE World News that the Taliban views the LGBTQ+ community as “worse than animals.”
“As a woman, I will lose my freedom to study, to work, and live freely,” she said. “As an LGBTQ+ member, I am not even recognised.”
Many queer sources VICE World News spoke to shared messages from their friends soon after the Taliban occupation. “I’m going crazy. I can’t continue this life,” read one message. “I’m gay and I have not stepped out of my house this week,” read another. Some messages carried suicidal thoughts and intentions of self-harm.
Omid, who has not known life without war in Afghanistan, said queer people “just cannot survive the barbaric Taliban rule.”
“Believe me, if they find out that I’m gay, they will kill me on the spot,” the 21-year-old told VICE World News. “Taliban has made speeches about forgiving Afghans. That’s just posturing for the world. It’s not real.”
Omid said being out was impossible under the previous governments too. “If the family members come to know their son is gay, they will persecute their own son,” he said. “The only difference between before and now is that earlier, we could be sent to jail for being gay. Now, we will be shot dead.”
“As a woman, I will lose my freedom to study, to work, and live freely. As an LGBTQ+ member, I am not even recognised.”
Like thousands of Afghans, Omid, too, is stuck at home as medical resources in his city run out. With a history of mental health problems, Omid is struggling to find medication for depression and acute anxiety.
“I’ve had it ever since a bomb blast took place in front of my school when I was a child,” he said of his condition. “Now, with no psychological aid, I have suicidal thoughts, and I’m resorting to self-harm.”
Some global non-profits and Afghans abroad are setting up emergency fundraisers to provide assistance and arrange evacuations for queer Afghans. One such GoFundMe fundraiser was started by a queer Muslim from Kabul who is now a professor in the U.S.
“The situation in Afghanistan haunts me. I’ve not slept in two days,” the professor told VICE World News. “I’m trying to get my own family out, but also queer and trans communities who are the direct targets of the Taliban. We’re trying to arrange emergency evacuation, and also help them survive. Many are not stepping out of homes. Some lost their jobs. They need basic amenities like food and water. Most are under extreme stress and depression.”
Nemat Sadat, an American author of Afghan descent. is also in the process of helping the LGBTQ+ community.
The author grew up in the U.S. but went to Kabul in 2012 to teach. There, he openly advocated LGBTQ+ rights that resulted in extreme backlash from the government and dismissal from his job. The events, he said, forced him to come out as gay, making him one of Afghanistan’s first openly gay activists. Several Islamic preachers in Afghanistan have issued fatwas against him.
“I’m so glad I went to Afghanistan, even if it forced me to come out of the closet,” he told VICE World News. “Now, I’m helping them get out. I’m worried about the LGBTQ+ people not only being victims of the Taliban, but also exterminated by them Nazi-style,” he added.
“Believe me, if they find out that I’m gay, they will kill me on the spot. Taliban has made speeches about forgiving Afghans. That’s just posturing for the world. It’s not real.”
Queer people in Afghanistan may not discuss their identities in the open, but they are leaders in different fields of Afghan society, he said.
“It’s a common misconception that queer people are not visible,” he added. “But once you live with them, you’ll see that they’re just leading quiet lives, trying not to attract attention because of the stigma.”
But this week, queer people were forced back into the closet.
“They send me messages about fears that the Taliban will break open the doors and take them away,” he said. “They’re also worried their phones will be searched, so they are deleting all their photos and chats.”
An Afghan living in Turkey who runs a prominent radio show for queer voices said queer Afghans are increasingly censoring themselves online.
He told VICE World News that one of his young queer Afghan followers befriended a man on Facebook three weeks ago. A day after the Taliban takeover, the new Facebook friend suggested they meet “to flee Afghanistan.” When the follower turned up for the clandestine meeting, he reportedly saw three Taliban soldiers waiting for him. They allegedly raped him, threatened to reveal his sexual orientation to his family, and then beat him up.
“Young Afghans like us had only heard of the first Taliban regime, and all the stoning to death, and burying queer people alive,” said the radio show host. “This week, all those stories became a possibility for our generation. More scary is how the Taliban is online, too.”
For years, Taliban trolls have been hunting queer Afghans online and giving them death threats. “Those threats have increased, and now queer Afghans are in danger both in real life and online,” he said.
“Young Afghans like us had only heard of the first Taliban regime, and all the stoning to death, and burying queer people alive. This week, all those stories became a possibility for our generation. More scary is how the Taliban is online, too.”
For many, leaving the country is their only hope. “Just by staying here, we’re killing ourselves,” said Sulaiman.
“I almost went to the airport that day and grabbed onto the plane,” Omid said, mentioning the Afghans who fell to their deaths when they stowed away on a US military plane on Monday.
“Those people clinging to that plane, they’re not crazy. They’re educated, they had jobs. People didn’t cling to the plane and give up their lives because America is some paradise. They clung to the plane because they knew they would not survive here. And we have every right to not want to die.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.
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