Afghan 'bacha bazi' kidnappings: search for the victims

A glassy-eyed Afghan teenager sits mutely beside his father, hunched over a tray of tea and candy, unable to tell the painful story of how he was kidnapped by a policeman to be used as his sex slave.

After weeks of searching, AFP met the boy in a remote, undisclosed location in southern Afghanistan where he lives in virtual hiding two years after his ordeal.

He is among 13 families traced by our reporters who have suffered from "bacha bazi" —- the institutionalised sexual enslavement of children by Western-backed Afghan forces.

But let's back up a bit to explain how we got there.

When AFP's exclusive report in June revealed how the Taliban are using child sex slaves as Trojan Horses to kill their abusers in Afghan police ranks, it triggered a flurry of reaction.

It prompted President Ashraf Ghani to launch a "thorough investigation", stressing that bacha bazi in security ranks is a crime.

It sparked reinvigorated calls from US lawmakers to end child abuse by Afghan allies.

It also, not unexpectedly, prompted angry Afghan officials to privately accuse AFP reporters of "trying to bring Afghanistan a bad name". But that is another story.

Spectacularly absent in the conversations was the plight of the enslaved children, their families, and the official efforts —- or the lack thereof —- to rescue them from their abusers.

Thus began the months-long hunt for testimonies from various provinces, many of them disturbingly similar and revealing a hidden epidemic of child abuse.

Significantly, they shed light on where these child sex slaves come from. A common theory has been that poor families sell them to powerful commanders or that some willingly choose a life of servitude, lured by the prospect of gifts or easy cash.

But all 13 testimonies highlighted cases of abduction, sometimes with the help of pimps.

They offered a searing portrayal of a practice campaigners say is nothing short of culturally-sanctioned rape.

They spotlighted the helplessness among families, who are unable to rescue children in a system with no specific law against bacha bazi, no mechanism for redress and apparently no official will to act against abusive policemen who are seen as the lesser of two evils in the fight against the Taliban.

In the fog of the conflict, sexual violence against children has become a new normal.

- 'Living dead' -

But tracing these families and interviewing them was fraught with challenges as a culture of shame and silence shrouds the practice.

With the help of activists, tribal elders and community leaders, AFP managed to find multiple families of victims. Some families led to other families.

But a few in far flung volatile districts were unreachable because of security constraints or poor mobile communication.

Some others refused to talk, fearing reprisals.

"Your report won't bring my son back; it won't change anything," one father in Uruzgan told AFP, his voice laden with grief.

Some activists initially offered to help but later declined to part with their contacts, fearing they might rankle authorities.

The testimonies gathered in the end are perhaps therefore only a small illustration of a deeply pervasive problem.

This search for victims eventually brought an AFP team to the same room as the boy who would not speak about his ordeal.

His story was different —- he is one of the fortunate few who managed to escape his abuser.

AFP interviewed various members of his family in Helmand and the powerful official who helped rescue him. He advised the family to flee the province over fears that the boy could be retaken.

But the boy, still struggling to overcome his psychological injuries, was unable to talk.

"Those scars will take a long time to heal," his father said. "He is like the living dead."

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