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Kandahar Men Return to Original Love: Teenage Boys

Now that Taliban rule is over in Mullah Omar's former southern stronghold, it is not only televisions, kites and razors which have begun to emerge. 

Visible again, too, are men with their ashna, or beloveds: young boys they have groomed for sex. 

Kandahar's Pashtuns have been notorious for their homosexuality for centuries, particularly their fondness for naïve young boys. Before the Taliban arrived in 1994, the streets were filled with teenagers and their sugar daddies, flaunting their relationships. 

Kandahar is called the homosexual capital of south Asia. Such is the Pashtun obsession with sodomy — locals tell you that birds fly over the city using only one wing, the other covering their posterior — that the rape of young boys by warlords was one of the key factors in Mullah Omar mobilising the Taliban. 

In the summer of 1994, a few months before the Taliban took control of the city, two commanders confronted each other over a young boy whom they both wanted to sodomize. 

In the ensuing fight civilians were killed. Omar's group freed the boy and appeals began flooding in for Omar to help in other disputes. 

By November, Omar and his Taliban were Kandahar's new rulers. Despite the Taliban disdain for women, and the bizarre penchant of many for eyeliner, Omar immediately suppressed homosexuality. 

Men accused of sodomy faced the punishment of having a wall toppled on to them, usually resulting in death. In February 1998 three men sentenced to death for sodomy in Kandahar were taken to the base of a huge mud and brick wall, which was pushed over by tank. Two of them died, but one managed to survive. 

"In the days of the Mujahedeen [the pre-Taliban victors against the Communist government], there were men with their ashna everywhere, at every corner, in shops, on the streets, in hotels: it was completely open, a part of life," said Torjan, 38, one of the soldiers loyal to Kandahar's new governor, Gul Agha Sherzai. 

"But in the later Mujahedeen years, more and more soldiers would take boys by force, and keep them for as long as they wished," Torjan said. "But when the Taliban came, they were very strict about the ban. Of course, it still happened — the Taliban could not enter every house — but one could not see it." 

But for the first time since the Taliban fled, in the past few weeks, one can see the pairs returning: usually a heavily bearded man, seated next to, or walking with, a clean-shaven, fresh-faced youth. There appears to be no shame or furtiveness about them, although when approached, they refuse to talk to a Western journalist. 

"They are just emerging again," Torjan said. "The fighters too now have the boys in their barracks. This was brought to the attention of Gul Agha, who ordered the boys to be expelled, but it continues. The boys live with the fighters very openly. In a short time, and certainly within a year, it will be like pre-Taliban: they will be everywhere." 

This Pashtun tradition is even reflected in Pashtun poetry, odes written to the beauty and complexion of an ashna, but it is usually a terrible fate for the boys concerned. It is practiced at all levels of Pashtun society, but for the poorer men, having an ashna can raise his status. 

"When a man sees a boy he likes — the age they like is 15 or 16 — they will approach him in the street and start talking to him, offering him tea," said Muhammad Shah, a shop owner. "Sometimes they go looking in the football stadium, or in the cinema" (which has yet to reopen). 

"He then starts to give him presents, hashish, or a watch, a ring, or even a motorbike," Shah continued. "One of the most valued presents is a fighting pigeon, which can be worth up to $400. These boys are nearly always innocent, but such is the poverty here, they cannot refuse." 

Once the boy falls into the man's clutches — nearly always a man with a wife and family — he is marked for life, although the Kandaharis accept these relationships as part of their culture. 

When driven around, ashna sit in the front passenger seat. The back seat is simply for his friends. Even the parents of the boys know in their hearts the nature of the relationship, but will tell people that their son is working for the man. They, like everyone else, will know this is a lie. 

"They say birds flew with both wings with the Taliban," Muhammad said. "But not any more."