Queer Afghans who escaped the Taliban share stories of survival, fear and hope, one year on
It’s been one year since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, plunging countless people into unknowable danger and uncertainty.
Basir still remembers the terror he felt in the days and weeks after Kabul fell on 15 August, 2021.
As an LGBTQ+ activist, Basir knew he was in danger. Any deviation from sexual and gender norms would be fiercely punished by Taliban officials. Reports quickly started to circulate about LGBTQ+ people being beaten, murdered, dismembered, and even raped. He knew he had to get out.
“When the Taliban took over Kabul, where I was living, I felt that they would come after me soon,” he tells PinkNews.
As painful as Basir’s story is, he’s one of the lucky ones. One year on, he’s living in Canada with his wife and children. The traumas of the past still haunt him, but he is doing his best to move forward – to focus on the future.
The same can’t be said for everyone. To this day, countless LGBTQ+ people are still stuck in Afghanistan. Those who dare to express themselves openly face violence and persecution most people could never even imagine.
As we mark one year since the fall of Kabul, PinkNews spoke to three queer men to find out what the past year has been like for them. All three have fled Afghanistan, but that doesn’t mean they’re all safe.
Basir made it to Canada, but the trauma still lingers
When the Taliban seized power, the first thing Basir did was search for a hiding place. As a bisexual man who had campaigned for LGBTQ+ rights, he knew his life – and the lives of his family members – were at risk.
He quickly came up with a plan to get himself, his wife and their two children to safety. He was able to secure a visa to go to Canada, but Taliban officials stopped him from boarding the flight. He was forced to return home.
Shortly afterwards, he had his first major run-in with the Taliban.
“One day, two members of the Taliban stopped me on the street,” Basir says. “They searched my cellphone. Any connection with international [communities], any message hinting my sexual tendency or my chat with my LGBTQ friends would literally elicit those two members to open fire and shoot me on my forehead. They did not need any permit to kill me – my messages and phone numbers were my death verdict.”
Thankfully, Basir had deleted all his social media profiles when the Taliban took over – he knew he would be stopped and searched one day. It was better to be prepared.
The Taliban officials could find no evidence to incriminate Basir, but that didn’t stop them from beating him – they slapped and kicked him, wounding one of his legs. They kept his phone.
I still have deep traumas
In the weeks that followed, Basir tried to get into Kabul airport eight times. Each time, he was turned away.
Eventually, he travelled by land to another city, where he was once again beaten by Taliban members. It was there that he and his family were able to get on a flight to Pakistan. He waited in Pakistan for two months before receiving his Canadian visa, and finally, in October 2021, he and his family relocated.
“The whole family still struggle with the mental hardship of those days,” Basir says. “I still have deep traumas of arrival of the Taliban last year, but the truth is that I need to start a new life in Canada.”
Basir has got to safety, but he still doesn’t feel comfortable being open about his sexuality. He fears coming out as bisexual would have an “emotional impact” on his loved ones, but he is also worried Canadian society might not be accepting of him. He says a “devout Christian” in Canada tried to “morally usher” him to be straight.
“That was when I felt that I should not publicly speak about my sexual tendency, but I will talk about LGBTQ with courage,” he says.
Sohil made it to Pakistan, but his hopes for the future are dwindling
Before the Taliban seized power, Sohil had a good life in Afghanistan. He was studying medicine at university, he had a job, and he was starting to think about what his future would look like.
Overnight, he lost everything.
“For a month I was in shock – I didn’t know what to do,” Sohil tells PinkNews. “I knew that one day I would lose myself in here, one day I will die in here.”
Sohil’s fears quickly came to pass. Shortly after Kabul fell, he was burned with scalding water by a Taliban official for wearing “western” clothes. He was later abducted and imprisoned for three days while Taliban officers beat him and searched his phone.
When they couldn’t find any incriminating evidence, Taliban officials let Sohil go – but the experience made him realise he couldn’t stay in Afghanistan. Thanks to LGBTQ+ activist Nemat Sadat and his advocacy group Roshaniya, Sohil secured a visa and was able to cross the border into Pakistan.
Months later, Sohil is still in Pakistan. He has applied for asylum elsewhere in the hope he can relocate to a country where he could be openly gay, but he is still waiting on a decision. He is currently living in a hostel.
“I don’t have any hope right now,” Sohil says. “It’s the same as Afghanistan, everyone treats us like s**t. I’m really scared of people nowadays.”
He continues: “If I stay here, I won’t survive. There is no support for us – I don’t know what to do.”
I want to be myself again – I don’t want to live in the shadows
A year after the Taliban seized power, Sohil is losing hope he will ever get to safety.
“I don’t think I have any future anymore,” he says. “My life has stopped in here – I don’t have any freedom.”
Sohil still dreams of one day returning to university so he can become a doctor. His dream would be to get to a country where he could study and be open about his sexuality.
“I want to be myself again – I don’t want to live in the shadows. I hope it will happen but I don’t have any hope now. I don’t know what will happen because nothing has changed – it’s been more than one year and I’m still stuck. One year of my life gone for nothing.”
Sulaiman can breathe easily in England
Sulaiman had come out as gay to two friends before the Taliban took over. After Kabul fell, it dawned on him that if one of them chose to out him, he would be killed.
“It was very frightening for me. Every moment I was afraid I would be killed by the Taliban,” he tells PinkNews.
Like so many others, Sulaiman quickly started hatching a plan to get out. An American friend of his was able to put him in touch with Rainbow Railroad, a charity that helps LGBTQ+ asylum seekers. He waited for months in terror before he received word in February that he was being granted access to the UK.
Sulaiman was told to travel to Islamabad in Pakistan. From there, UK authorities flew him to safety.
He’s been living in a hotel in the Midlands ever since, working a part-time job ,which has enabled him to earn his own money. He uses some to save for his future, and he sends the rest to his family back home. He spends his evenings studying for a part-time course in administration.
He considers himself lucky – he’s just glad to be safe.
“We are happy in the hotel,” he says. “Some guys study, some are going to college. I’m fine here.”
“When I walk on the street I see people with different identities, different genders, different desires, but in Afghanistan you have to follow the rules if you want to be alive,” Sulaiman explains.
“If you don’t observe their rules, you will be killed.”
Even now, he is keeping his sexuality a secret. He’s still not comfortable being totally open about who he is – and he’s terrified his family back home will reject him if they find out.
“They are not ready to accept me at the moment.”
Two years ago, he lost my father. Losing his family’s support is his biggest fear.
I took a deep breath and I said: ‘You’re free. Now you can live’
“My family is still in shock. I know they’re not ready to accept this.
“I’m alone in this country. If I lost my family from Afghanistan, if they don’t accept me anymore, I won’t live. Life would be very disappointing for me if they don’t accept me and if they don’t answer my calls. I still need them to talk to me, to be beside me and support me.”
Still, Sulaiman has hope for the future. He says he can finally “breathe freely” in the UK – something he wasn’t able to do in Afghanistan.
“I really enjoy every moment that I’m here,” he says. “It means a lot to me that I can do whatever I want. When I put my foot on the land of this country I took a deep breath and I said, ‘you’re free. Now you can live’.
“We were not living in Afghanistan – we were struggling to survive – but now here we are living.”
PinkNews is raising money for queer refugees displaced by conflicts in Afghanistan, Ukraine and beyond. Please donate what you can to the LGBTQ+ Refugees Welcome campaign by visiting our GoFundMe page.
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