The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan
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Q&A with Producer Jamie Doran and Reporter Najibullah Quraishi

Doran and Quraishi investigated this story for more than a year and a half. Quraishi had been a prominent journalist in Afghanistan before being driven into exile; Doran has made dozens of reporting trips to Afghanistan over the years.

Najibullah Quraishi (left) and Jamie Doran

Will Shafiq be able to get an education now that he is back with his family?

Both of us, and FRONTLINE's staff, have made personal contributions to help Shafiq's family resettle and see to it that he gets an education. If viewers are interested in helping to support the boy's schooling, FRONTLINE has set up a trust account and will make sure that all donations go directly to help pay for Shafiq's tuition and fees.

Please make the check out to WGBH/The Shafiq Education Fund and mail your letter and donation to:

One Guest Street
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All letters will be acknowledged. Donations are not tax deductible.

Why did you use Mestary to rescue Shafiq when we know that he, too, has abused boys?

There can be no excusing Mestary's warped obsession with young boys. "Bacha bazi" is a heinous crime with immeasurable damage inflicted on the children involved. But we were presented with a dilemma: we knew Shafiq was in imminent danger and consulted Western agencies and child welfare experts in Afghanistan for advice about how he could be rescued. But they turned out to be unable or even unwilling to help. In some cases, we were even warned that in certain Afghan shelters the children were abused by those who should have been looking after their welfare.

Confronted by this, and after much thought, it was decided that the only way in which swift action could be taken was to approach Mestary, whom I and Najibullah have known personally on an occasional basis since the war in 2001. Although he could not easily be described as a reformed character, it's clear from his interviews that Mestary's active involvement in bacha bazi had been in the past. More significantly, in the latter part of filming and in his discussions with Mestary once we had returned home, Najibullah sensed a change in attitude, even a recognition that the practice was wrong.

With few if any options available and time running against us, we asked Mestary if he would help return Shafiq to his family and then, in turn, help us to re-house them in a safe region far from Dastager and Rafi. We knew that he had strong contacts in government and hoped he could persuade them to act on Shafiq's behalf, which he did.

One other key factor in our choice was that Mestary is himself a far more powerful man than both of them -- something that remains of great importance in Afghanistan -- and we knew that neither Dastager nor Rafi would dare to attempt to countermand him.

What makes you think that Shafiq's father won't sell him again?

He has been given financial assistance by ourselves and others, including Mestary and the new chief of police in Takhar, appointed by Kabul. It has been made clear to the father by the authorities that this situation should never be allowed to occur again. The authorities remain in touch with the family in their new location and the two of us -- Najibullah and myself -- will make efforts to monitor their welfare, including occasional visits.

There is one other crucial factor involving Shafiq's mother, which I am unwilling to go into, but that was potentially the most important reason behind the father's decision not only to take the boy back, but to move to a new region. Afghan wives have little influence, but this mother wanted her child back at any cost.

You hid Shafiq's identity, but not the other boys. Did you put them in danger by not blurring their faces?

Again, this was a matter we debated long and hard, consulting many people, including a good number in Afghanistan itself. Two factors were central: the boys' safety and the stigma attached through involvement in bacha bazi, despite the fact that they had no choice, having been either kidnapped or sold by their parents.

We began with the widely acknowledged reality that Afghanistan is an immensely dangerous country and that our main characters, Imam, Abdullah, Nemat and Shafiq, were already living a life-threatening existence of potential abduction and murder -- as is clearly established in the film -- long before we arrived with our film cameras.

We analyzed the position of each boy individually and collectively and came to the decision that all their faces should be shown on the basis that it is far easier to "disappear" someone in Afghanistan if they are anonymous -- kidnapping and murder of children are daily occurrences in the country -- and that, by showing their faces, we afforded them a small degree of greater protection than they had even before our arrival.

In a previous film, I had taken the decision -- without their specific request -- to hide the identities of two witnesses, something one would tend to do in most countries. But Afghanistan isn't most countries, and the warlord whose atrocities I was revealing financed a massive search for my witnesses. They were found, tortured and murdered, and no one outside close family and the perpetrators were any the wiser until much later.

Thus, in this new situation, we were compelled to choose whatever method would best protect the boy. There is no guarantee that these boys will be safe in the future and I reiterate that long before we arrived they were in great danger. This overrode any concerns regarding stigma that might be attached to their involvement in bacha bazi, coupled with the fact that it was already widely known throughout the region that they were dancing boys.

The reason we chose to hide Shafiq's [not his real name] identity was, firstly, he was new and not yet well known; and secondly, due to the success of the rescue operation and his move to a new location far from the clutches of Dastager and Rafi. He is now beginning a new life and we chose to blur his face for reasons of stigma only.

Do you know anything about the roots of bacha bazi?

To be honest, no one really knows. There are ancient paintings from 400 or 500 years ago of dancing boys. So, clearly, it goes way back.

But it is more recently that it suddenly exploded. During the war, when the Russians came into Afghanistan, the mujahideen were pushed over the mountains, back into Pakistan. When they had nothing to do -- and Dastager talks about this in the film -- they turned to bacha bazi. So the growth began there. And of course when they came back into Afghanistan, they began the custom again.

The Taliban then came in, took over most of the country, and to a very great extent stopped bacha bazi even in the rural areas. But it continued in the northern area where the Northern Alliance were -- again, competition between commanders. After the Taliban were thrown out -- end of 2001, early 2002 -- the Northern Alliance basically took over the major area and the huge explosion started.

posted april 20, 2010

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