August 20, 2023

By Nadeem Khan


Even as night settles over Quetta, there are plenty of cars whizzing past us as we disappear into a two-story house along Sattar Road. We grope the walls on either side as we take every cautious step up a set of very narrow stairs, engulfed in darkness. We reach the top floor, but our path is barred by a closed door – I rap my knuckles on it, and our feet are suddenly illuminated by light spilling out from under the gap. It swings open.

With a lit cigarette in hand, a cloud of smoke billows out from Danish’s lips, scattering the electrical light so that it almost looks like he is briefly surrounded by a halo before the smoke eventually dissipates in the air.

At just 22 years of age, Danish has seen and experienced far more than anyone would want to in a lifetime.

“Back in Kabul, there were plenty of people around me who knew that I’m gay,” he says. “The Taliban’s promotion of virtue and prevention of vice police were routing out LGBTQ persons. To the regime, we’re not only anti-religion but we’re also agents of the West because of our networks with ally groups through which we were able to access safe havens during the Republic era.”

“I had no option but to escape.”

The first time he fled his home country, he found work at a bakery in Iran’s capital, Tehran. Within two months, however, he along with many other Afghan refugees were deported by Iran’s security forces and sent to the Afghan border town of Islam Qala.

According to a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) border monitoring report, an estimated 45,500 undocumented Afghans were deported from Iran through the Islam Qala and Zaranj crossing points between 1 and 30 April, amounting to an average of 1,516 people every day.

In his second attempt, he once again traveled to Iran and remained there for a three-month transit stay before attempting to illegally cross over to Turkey. He was arrested and allegedly tortured in custody by the Iranian border security for two weeks before he was handed over to the Taliban via the border at Nimruz.

For his third (and so far final) attempt, Danish made way for Pakistan, entering Chaman from Kandahar. He has since taken up residence in Quetta where, due to his status as an undocumented ‘alien’, he makes a living as a sex worker. A bold risk to take in a society in many ways as conservative as that of Afghanistan.

The youth has no parents or siblings to support him.

“My mother died after giving birth to me so it was just my father and I. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan, they abducted him. I don’t know where he is. My partner also fled to Germany,” he relates, and the loneliness coaxes a strangled sob from his throat. “I’m suffocating here. I don’t know how I’ll end up.”

Afghanistan’s deeply religious and patriarchal society does not tolerate homosexuality. Although protection and security for the LGBTQ community were absent even in the Republic era, there was enough space for queer folk to be able to live secret lives.

Under the Taliban regime and its aggressive interpretation of Sharia, sexual nonconformity is a criminal offense that can be charged with severe penalties.

The country’s queer community is not the only casualty. Since assuming control on August 15, 2021, the Afghan Taliban leadership has barred girls from attaining secondary and higher education, and women from holding any sort of job, all while calling upon the international community to accept these medieval ways. A great many Republic employees, social and civil rights activists, journalists as well as LGBTQ Afghans have been forced to flee for their survival.

Per a 2021 UNHCR estimate, around half a million Afghans could flee their country by year-end. While many hope to travel to and settle in developed nations, most migrants are able to flee persecution and war by crossing the border into Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian states. Another set of data compiled by the UNHCR states that as of June 2022, the number of Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers in neighboring countries is estimated at 2.1 million. As of March 2023, Pakistan is hosting approximately 1.37 million refugees and asylum-seekers, most of whom are of Afghan origin. The actual number however may be much, much higher.

Pakistan also does not have any law or policy to address the refugee crisis or document the true number of Afghan migrants.

“UNHCR in coordination with the Government of Pakistan to create a plan for refugees. Furthermore, UNHCR tries its level best to keep them settled as many of them face life threats back at home,” says Qaiser Afridi, spokesperson for UNHCR Pakistan.

Earlier, Amnesty International expressed grave concern over the arrest and imprisonment of Afghan refugees, including women and children, in Karachi. Upon publication of this statement, the detained migrants were deported back to Afghanistan.

Several Afghan new migrants in Pakistan have applied for asylum in developed Western nations. UNHCR alone has registered 3,175 applications under their resettlement program, which relocates asylum-seekers whose life is in grave danger to the United States. and European countries. This is a lifeline that Afghan LGBTQ have tried to hold on to, applying to different embassies and commissionerates for sanctuary through their Pakistan offices.

However, Afridi states that the quota for this program is very meager.

Only 19 out of the 3,175 applicants received by UNHCR have been successfully resettled in Australia, Canada and the U.S.

“UNHCR is in sustained dialogue with host countries to increase the number of migrants,” he states.

The trauma of fleeing almost certain death, the hardships that accompany statelessness and an agonizingly slow process to finally reach a safe haven have deeply scarred Afghan LGBTQ, both at home and in Pakistan.

Under the rule of supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada, dubbed by his followers the ‘Emir of the Faithful’, the Taliban have imposed archaic and restrictive regulations that has seen a blanket ban on girls’ education, women’s employment, and humanitarian and developmental international non-governmental organizations (iNGOs), as well as establishing an oppressive policing system and kangaroo courts as mere formalities for a skewed criminal justice system.

Ahmed, 24, and his 25-year-old partner split for their own safety after the fall of Kabul. He was among the relatively lucky ones who procured a visa during the Republic era, and was able to cross into Pakistan via the Torkham border. He is now residing with relatives in Peshawar.

“When the Taliban took over, it was suddenly impossible to live the way I had before. No one is safe, no one has the right to be comfortable with and celebrate who they are. What liberties can the LGBTQ community have over there?” he posits.

But where he is now does not guarantee his complete freedom. Tribal and religious customs still have a stronghold in Peshawar, and so Ahmed must also stay lowkey so as to not arouse suspicions as to his sexuality.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also expressed concerns over the state of the LGBTQ community in a 43-page report based on 60 interviews. The same reports an interview with the German tabloid Bild, where a Taliban judge stated that “For homosexuals, there can only be two punishments: either stoning, or he must stand behind a wall that will fall down on him.”

Nemat Sadat, who leads an Afghan LGBTQ organization called Roshaniya or “Enlightened”, is devastated by the political, social and economic upheaval of Afghanistan under the Taliban.

“There is no future for us under them. Our community is desperate for refuge in countries where there are LGBTQ-friendly laws, but our applications are not being prioritized,” he laments, explaining that of the 2,000 applications received and forwarded by Roshiana, only 215 were able to secure asylum. Hundreds others had to be urgently relocated to Iran and Pakistan for their safety.

Maryam, 24, is among those LGBTQ members still trapped in Afghanistan. Residing in Kabul, she had means to support herself through work at a local market. After August 15, 2021, she lost not just her job but any chance of ever taking up work and earning a living. Unlike so many others, she was unable to migrate to Pakistan due to circumstances in her own life making it dangerous for her to make the journey.

Maryam is actually from a village where her family still resides. But there is no safety to be had there – the whole community knows of her sexual orientation, and one of her uncles is also a member of the Taliban. She currently lives in a rented basement apartment in Kabul and is seriously considering marrying a man in order to avoid being outed a lesbian.

“I can’t go back to my village because they’ll surely kill me,” she says. “I used to live somewhere else in Kabul, but my uncle found my whereabouts. I’m alive today because I moved as quickly as I could. My new home is literally underground. I can’t even get out anymore.”

Maryam had a partner who fled to her hometown Herat. They are no longer in contact, suspicious of even online applications due to past incidents where the Taliban’s spy networks were able to trace and arrest several NGO workers. She has managed to survive so far on donations from friends.

“I’ve contacted the French and German embassies via emails, but it did nothing.”

The Afghan War escalated in scale and severity after the 1979 Saur Revolution, where after the Soviets assumed control of the country, culminating in a 9-year-long war with the Mujahideen and migrations in the millions. The Mujahideen were later replaced by the Taliban in opposition to the U.S. In 1996, the Taliban assumed control over Kabul, driving even more Afghans to Panjsher valley for safety.

In the aftermath of 9/11, a new Afghanistan came into being where democratic forces entered and wrested control in the ‘interest of democracy, human rights and diverse governance.’

The two decade-long Republic era produced a diverse Afghan society. Following the 2020 Doha Agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban (sans the involvement of the then-Afghan Government), the former initiated a hasty withdrawal of all forces from Afghanistan. With the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) unable to sustain security with the sudden absence of U.S. troops and technology that it had been so reliant on for the past 20 years, the Taliban launched an hostile takeover in May of 2021, eventually capturing the capital on August 15, 2021.

In the two years since, Afghanistan and her people have been contending with a humanitarian crisis of unfathomable scale, with its new rulers neither accepting nor recognizing international principles of human rights and democracy. The hardline religious stance and oppressive governance has invited a number of sanctions from the international community, further alienating and exacerbating the conditions of some 40 million Afghans.

In response, the Taliban have approached China and Russia to establish trade links while not having to sacrifice the terms of their rule.

Names in this story have been altered due to privacy and security concerns.


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