There are few things in this world that can make the blood run colder than to hear a United States Marine use the word “hopeless.”
“When faced with laugh or cry situations, you laugh. It’s really all you can do in a hopeless situation,” he says.
Gallows humor is one of the few coping mechanisms our warfighters have on Afghan front. At US-controlled forward-operating bases, soldiers & marines are maintaining a fragile truce while training what the American government hopes will be the future of self-reliant peace in Afghanistan. In the days since the fall of the Taliban, new freedoms have come with an unexpected and disturbing price: the resurgence of “bacha bazi”…translation, “playing with kids”.
Last week, SamePageNation presented reports that senior military officers have ordered American fighters not to interfere with the practice of buying, selling and molesting young boys. But for one Marine, it’s about more than following orders. It’s about keeping himself and his fellow servicemen alive.
“It was never an order,” he states. “When you get over there, you keep your mouth shut until you figure out what is going on. Everyone basically said to shut up so you don’t ‘disrespect their culture’, which gets you shot. They believe being dishonored is an act worthy of killing to regain your honor. It doesn’t take an order to realize you don’t want to be shot in the back…especially considering the number of Americans being killed by Afghans already.”
“JC”, a US Marine Corps officer speaking on the condition of anonymity, spent two tours totaling 15 months in Afghanistan. What he experienced and described may be shocking, but unfortunately not new.
“We knew prior to 9/11 they molested children. Suddenly it’s an outrage?” His question might seem valid. Khaled Hosseini’s bestselling 2003 novel The Kite Runner included graphic depictions of the so-called “chai boy” phenomenon. Twelve years, seven million copies, and a hit film adaptation later, the American public still seems shocked that such activities are going on at our forces’ doorsteps.
“[We heard] the discussions, through my interpreter, about what they do on Thursday nights. Also saw the boys as we made our travels, all dressed up and henna tattoos/hair colored. Would hear it sometimes and walk away because it’s pretty disgusting. Thursday nights were always called ‘man love Thursday’.”
The jokes might seem callous, but it’s the only salve some fighters have for the helplessness they feel. “You keep your mouth shut and don’t cock block the Afghans, and they don’t shoot you,” JC says. “But, if you don’t rescue the chai boy, he shoots you. It’s a numbers game. Dozens of Afghan soldiers & police, or one 14-year-old boy. The problem is it’s a Catch 22.”
According to a 2014 report by The Diplomat’s Roshni Kapur, bacha bazi is considered a sign of wealth and power among the political, military & economic elite of Afghanistan:
This tradition is seeing a revival in the north of the country. Former commanders in the Northern Alliance are a part of a syndicate that is resurrecting bacha bazi, which serves as a status symbol. For those who cannot afford to buy children, DVDs are sold openly on the streets. Some boys are sold by their parents, others are lured from the streets with the promise of a better life.
Although bacha bazi is outlawed in Afghanistan, being against both sharia law and the civil code, there is little enforcement. Muhammad Ibrahim, deputy Police Chief of Jowzjan denies that the practice continues: “We have not had any cases of bacha bazi in the last four to five years. It does not exist here anymore.”
JC confirms Afghan leaders’ denial. “Only the interpreters openly talk about it. The ones doing the act won’t speak of it in mixed company because it’s forbidden by Islam. So anything drawing attention to it, for or against, is an ugly reminder to them. We would never bring the subject up with the senior leaders I met. That would be like asking you personal questions.” When asked whether shame or fear of violent retribution was keeping Afghanis silent? “Both.”
“We don’t have time or the desire to change everything about their culture that we don’t like. When you try to do that, you’re there for much longer and you go from liberators to occupiers. Imagine them trying to make our women stop showing skin. That’s a major culture change that will take a generation to take effect.”
“We only want them stable enough to keep terror organizations from taking hold again. After that, there’s a whole world of child molesters out there. That doesn’t make it our job to fix it. You’d really like to, but we also want to go home and hold our own kids and keep them safe after witnessing something like that.”
And what of morale? “When you’re burying your friends, that doesn’t really move the needle,” he states. “All of us were [disgusted by the practice], but carrying human remains is pretty disgusting too. If there weren’t bullets flying, maybe we could have dedicated more time to worrying about what Afghans were doing to their future generations.” He goes on to describe one comrade who “got whole body shakes when he saw henna since he knew what it meant.”
JC acknowledges some of his answers come across as cold. “I doubt that’s what the world wants to hear, but it’s the truth at least,” he says. But his frustrations and apparent cynicism comes from, in his words, “risk averse commanders doing ‘by the book’ things to further their careers.”
On the subject of Army SFC Charles Martland, a decorated Green Beret who is facing an involuntary discharge for shoving an alleged Afghan child rapist in 2011, JC says, “This is one in a litany of instances where I don’t understand higher commanders’ actions. We had a guy court martialed for ordering snipers to disable a tractor that was evacuating enemy fighters. Sometimes I think there is a personal aspect to the command relationship that gets in the way of the ‘right’ thing to do.”
When asked what he would like to say to the commanders who put him and his brothers in close quarters with the people who perpetrate these horrors, his frustration is obvious…as is his suggestion that perhaps the unknowns are even worse than the knowns.
“That’s a loaded question. By that, I mean bacha bazi doesn’t come anywhere near the top of my list. Understand, we didn’t even have a national level mission when I got there.”
We ask: “So you have a list of grievances?”
“I’d say everybody does.”
Duane Lester contributed to this story