Editor’s Note: The names used to identify sources in this story are the ones they use to protect their identities in Afghanistan. They are not their real names
Azad was working the night before Kabul fell.
The 20-year-old finished her 5-hour shift dancing at a wedding at dawn and went straight to bed. She woke up a few hours later to a text message that read: “Taliban entered Kabul.” She thought her friend was joking. She called her partner but there was no response. She called again. Nothing.
Azad is a trans woman. And her partner of three years was suddenly missing.
Even before the United States fled and the Taliban reclaimed power last year, Afghanistan was a near impossible place to be a queer person. During the two decades that the United States occupied the country, homosexuality remained criminalized by vague legal language that endangered all queer people, forcing them to essentially live underground.
Artemis Akbary, a queer activist and co-founder of the country’s first organization to support LGBQT+ Afghans, said the support Western countries pledged to queer Afghans both before and after the US withdrawal never materialized.
“Unfortunately, in the past two decades, there wasn’t any organization that worked for the LGBT community in Afghanistan,” he said, referring to the period of time that the United States occupied the country. Akbary’s group has so far sent money to 100 queer Afghans in need of food and a way to escape.
While it’s always been difficult to be queer in Afghanistan, survival was at least possible.
Aliya, 24, is a gay man who lives in western Afghanistan. He said that before the return of the Taliban, it was often the public that posed the most risk. And while the police would sometimes assault them, the government wasn’t actively prosecuting their queerness as a crime. Queer Afghans at the time were able to socialize in certain safe spaces and use the internet to learn about their identities, or advocate for their rights.
Now even that small sliver of freedom is gone.
In late January, five months into Taliban rule, Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International released a report stating that LGBT Afghans, and others who don’t conform to rigid gender norms, “faced an increasingly desperate situation and grave threats to their safety and lives under the Taliban.” Some of the 60 Afghans interviewed for the report described how the Taliban gang-raped, assaulted, and threatened them.
“The [Taliban] have taken our rights to live. We can’t dare to leave our house. We are just waiting for our death,” Aliya said.
Like most non-binary Afghans, Azad’s parents disowned her when she was just a teenager. She said her father once tried to kill her by forcing her to drink alcohol. Eventually, after her father realized he couldn’t change Azad, he ended his own life.
After her father’s death by suicide, she left the family. She was 15. She started working as a dancer at underground parties, a practice known in Afghanistan as bacha bazi, an illegal practice where wealthy and often powerful men pay young boys and trans people to dance for them. The practice often includes sexual abuse and rape. It was during this time that she met her partner in a Kabul restaurant where queer people were once free to safely socialize. Azad, for the first time, had found someone who would soon come to love and stand by her.
So it was with enormous relief that, after an agonizing 3-day wait, her partner finally called back.
They met back at their house. He told her the Taliban arrested him at a checkpoint in Kabul. When the Taliban gunmen searched his phone, they discovered text messages and pictures that revealed his identity as a member of the queer community.
“They asked him about my whereabouts, but no matter how much they pressured my boyfriend, he didn’t give me up,” Azad said, crying as she described how the Taliban raped and tortured her partner. “They raped my boyfriend. They pulled two of his fingernails with pliers and gave him electric shocks. They pulled out his hair one by one,” she said. “When I saw my boyfriend, his shaved head and his torn body, I lost all my hope.”
According to the half dozen queer Afghans interviewed for this story, the Taliban appears to be actively searching for them, adding a level of terror to their already dangerous existence.
Amir, 21, used to run an Instagram page supporting gay rights in Afghanistan. But he hasn’t posted since August, fearing the Taliban might use his social media to trace him. “It was very effective in helping me understand that I was not alone,” he said in a phone interview about the importance of social media to him.
Shahriar, 20, said most of his queer, trans, and intersex friends on social media have also gone silent. Two of Shahriar’s friends who wanted to establish a media presence to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights are among those who “disappeared” since the Taliban returned, he said.
Akbary confirmed that the Taliban is working to entrap queer Afghans.
“In the first week of the takeover, the Taliban befriended a gay man on Facebook and told him that they can get him out of Afghanistan. When he met them, they raped him,” Akbary said.
For those Afghans who can’t hide their identity, just going outside is a danger to their lives.
“Afghanistan is hell for [LGBTQ+] people, especially for those whose bodies give clues to their gender identities. They can’t hide their bodies, [which means] they can’t go out and provide for their basic human needs, like food. And, there are no family and friends who offer help,” said Faryal, an activist who fled to Europe after the Taliban took over.
Aliya said that a few weeks ago he got sick and was on the way to see a doctor when two Taliban fighters stopped him. “You are a boy. Why do you look like a girl?” one of the Taliban fighters asked him. They asked for his cell phone but he pretended he didn’t understand pashto. They gave up. Now, to keep his friends safe, he only has numbers of his closest friends on his phone.
“If the Taliban caught one of us and tortured them, they can find all of us because we know where each of us lives,” Aliya said, adding that he knows more than 100 queer Afghans in the province where he lives.
After the assault, Azad and her partner tried to raise money to flee to Pakistan, but it wasn’t easy. For a new passport and a Pakistani visa it would cost her almost $1,000. With the help of a nongovernmental organization, they managed to raise enough for one of them to leave. So after four months, Azad fled to Pakistan, where she remains today.
“You must go and save yourself,” she remembers her partner telling her. “I will find a way to join you.”
Earlier this month, he finally did. Raising $400 he was able to cross illegally into Pakistan.
“No one, not even my family, has been kind to me except my boyfriend,” Azad said. “I am so happy that he has joined me safely.”