In the fog of the conflict, sexual violence against children has become a new normal. (Representative image) Photograph:( AFP )
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. 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."
Powerful warlords, commanders, politicians and other members of the elite often keep "bachas" as a symbol of authority and affluence. Bachas, sometimes dressed as women, are often sexually exploited. They can also be used as dancers at private parties.
Bacha bazi is not widely seen as homosexual behaviour, popularly demonised as a deviant sexual act, prohibited in Islam ,and is largely accepted as a cultural practice.
"Women are for child-rearing, boys are for pleasure" is a common saying across many parts of Afghanistan.
The ancient custom, banned under the Taliban's 1996-2001 rule, has seen a resurgence in recent years. It is said to be widespread across southern and eastern Afghanistan's rural Pashtun heartland, and with ethnic Tajiks across the northern countryside.
Tight gender segregation in Afghan society and lack of contact with women have contributed to the spread of bacha bazi, rights groups say.
Several other factors such as an absence of the rule of law, corruption, limited access to justice, illiteracy, poverty, insecurity, and the existence of armed groups have also resulted in the spread of bacha bazi, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said in a report in 2014.
AIHRC points out that Afghanistan's criminal law prohibits rape and pederasty, but there are no clear provisions on bacha bazi.
"There is a gap and ambiguity in the laws of Afghanistan regarding bacha bazi and the existing laws do not address the problem sufficiently," the report said.
"Many of the perpetrators have connections with the security organs and by using power and giving bribes they get exempted from punishment."
Bachas are typically aged between 10 and 18. Many of them are kidnapped and sometimes desperate poverty drives their families to sell them to abusers.
"The victims of bacha bazi suffer from serious psychological trauma as they often get raped," AIHRC's report said.
"Such victims suffer from stress and a sort of distrust, hopelessness and pessimistic feeling. Bacha bazi results in fear among the children and a feeling of revenge and hostility develop in their mind."
In turn, many adolescent victims are said to grow up to have boy lovers of their own, repeating the cycle of abuse.
"In the absence of any services to recover or rehabilitate boys who are caught in this horrendous abuse, it's hard to know what happens to these children," said Charu Lata Hogg, a London-based fellow at Chatham House, a think tank.
"We have heard anecdotal reports that many grow up to keep their own bachas, perpetuating the revolving door of abuse."
Bacha bazi is having a detrimental bearing on the perpetual state of conflict in Afghanistan, helping the Taliban to infiltrate security ranks in provinces such as Uruzgan, officials say.
The abusive practice in security ranks also undermines support for NATO-trained Afghan forces.
"To date, the US has provided over $60 billion in assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), including nearly $500 million to the Afghan Local Police," the US Congress said last year.
"Predatory sexual behaviour by Afghan soldiers and police could undermine US and Afghan public support for the ANDSF, and put our enormous investment at risk."
The practice also continues to embolden the Taliban's desire to reassert sharia law in Afghanistan and is fuelling their insurgency.
"Such wild abuses of the predatory mujahideen forces in the early 1990s drove the popularity of the austere Taliban,helping them sweep to power across most of the country.
Similar behaviour of the government forces after 2001 is also helping to inspire the insurgency," a Western official in Kabul told AFP.