The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan


The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan

Jamie Doran

Najibullah Quraishi

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE: In an Afghanistan ravaged by war and poverty, an ancient tradition has been secretly revived, young boys sold by their families to wealthy merchants and warlords, taught to dance and entertain, and used for sex.

RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY, U.N. Special Rep. for Children and Armed Conflict: It's a form of slavery, sexual slavery.

ANNOUNCER: Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi goes undercover to investigate the illegal practice known as bacha bazi.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI, Reporter: To expose the world of bacha bazi, first I had to get inside it.

ANNOUNCER: He uncovers the buying and selling of boys as young as 11, the dancing rituals, the sexual exploitation that can lead to murder-

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Last year, this boy was killed in this area.

ANNOUNCER: -and the officials who refuse to act.

RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY: The Afghan criminal justice system is not working.

NARRATOR: Tonight, FRONTLINE takes you inside the illicit sex trade of The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan.

NARRATOR: Najibullah Quraishi is an Afghan journalist who has been living in exile. He left Afghanistan after he was almost beaten to death while investigating a massacre of prisoners during the war in 2001. Now he was returning to conduct a new investigation, this time into the exploitation of poor children in Afghanistan.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI, Reporter: My country was always poor, but it was the conditions of the children that really shocked me.

GIRL BEGGING: Allah! Allah! Allah!

NARRATOR: Najibullah had returned to investigate reports Afghan boys are vulnerable to being sexually abused by powerful men who have brought back an ancient practice. Banned under the Taliban and still illegal under Afghan law, it's called bacha bazi. Translation, "boy play".


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Do you have any of the bacha bazi DVDs?

SELLER: Bacha bazi? No.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: You have some here.

Is this bacha bazi? Is selling these illegal? The police do nothing?

BOY SELLER: They don't bother us.


BOY SELLER: 60 afghanis. It's 3 films.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: But they look like women.

BOY SELLER: No, they're all boys.

NARRATOR: The DVDs show Afghan boys dressed in women's clothing, dancing before audiences made up entirely of men. The boys are street orphans or boys bought from poor parents in the countryside. It's common knowledge in this world that after the dancing, these boys are often sold to the highest bidder or shared among powerful men for sex.

No one had yet penetrated the secretive world of bacha bazi, but Najibullah was heading to Northern Afghanistan to meet a group of men who had agreed to take him inside the dancing boy culture. Near the northern city of Takhar, he arranged to meet one of those men, called Dastager.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [voice-over] To expose the world of bacha bazi, first I had to get inside it. So I had decided to tell Dastager that we were making a film about the same custom in Europe and we were interested to see how it was practiced in Afghanistan. Dastager seemed to accept this explanation.

NARRATOR: During the war against the Russians, Dastager was a mujahadeen commander. Today he's a very successful businessman. He owns a car dealership in Takhar, importing vehicles from the Far East, along with a string of other businesses. A respectable businessman and a devout Muslim by day, at night he leads a double life.

DASTAGER: [subtitles] I'll tie the bells.

IMAM: [subtitles] OK.

NARRATOR: Dastager invited Najibullah to meet one of his favorite dancing boys. Imam is 15 years old and is a veteran performer.

DASTAGER: [subtitles] You'll take their breath away. You'll really make me want to lose control.

IMAM: [singing, subtitles] His body is so soft. His lips are so tender. He's touching the boy with his cotton clothes.

NARRATOR: Imam was borrowed from his owner for this small party, staged for a few select men in Takhar.

RAFI: [singing, subtitles] Where do you live so I can get to know your dad? Oh, boy, you have put your lover on fire.

NARRATOR: The musician Rafi, a close friend of Dastager, is an important figure in bacha bazi circles in Takhar.

DASTAGER: [singing, subtitles] I'm heading towards the river and I'm so drunk, I either reach my lover or drown in the river.

NARRATOR: Gholom, another friend of Dastager, owns a restaurant in Takhar.

GOLHOM: [singing, subtitles] Oh, the one with the golden tooth, where are you? It's not good standing outside the door while you're inside. I want to put my head on your tender breasts. Oh, the one with the golden tooth, where are you? Why don't you come?

[ More on bacha bazi]


MAN: [subtitles] He's in love with you. He would die for you.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: How many boys have you had?

DASTAGER: For me, it's unlimited, maybe 2,000 or 3,000.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: They come and go?

DASTAGER: They come and go.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Did you have any good experiences?


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What experiences?

DASTAGER: Lot of experiences. I enjoy watching them.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: You have a special interest in them?


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Do you have sex with them, as well?

DASTAGER: No. [smiling]

NARRATOR: There had been an argument. Some of the other men wanted to take Imam home tonight, but Dastager was having none of it.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [subtitles] Who's taking the boy home?

DASTAGER: [subtitles] He's coming home with me. Come on.

NARRATOR: Najibullah caught up again with Dastager at one of his favorite spots, a swimming hole for men and boys. He asked him how the practice of bacha bazi, which had almost died out in Afghanistan, was brought back to the country.


DASTAGER: I was in the battlefield. I did jihad and became a commander. It was against the Russians, a terrible war. Bacha bazi comes from Pakistan. When the Russians invaded, the mujahadeen went over there. When they had nothing to do, they started bacha bazi.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: How long have you been doing bacha bazi?

DASTAGER: About 20 years.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What do you say to the boys?

DASTAGER: What can I say? If there is money and power, then boys will be ready.

NARRATOR: As a former Northern Alliance commander, Dastager remains one of the most powerful men in Takhar. At night, he travels with a bodyguard provided by the police.


POLICE OFFICER: OK, good-bye. You've taken enough.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Dastager, how come you brought the police along tonight?

DASTAGER: For security.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Sou can call the police at any time and they will be here in a few minutes?

DASTAGER: Anytime.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Anytime at night?

DASTAGER: Anytime.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: How many police can you bring at one time?

DASTAGER: In one minute, 100 men.

NARRATOR: Dastager lives in a wealthy neighborhood. He is married and has two young sons.


SON: I've read up to this page.

DASTAGER: What did the mullah say to you?

SON: I'm learning a lot.

DASTAGER: That's good. Let's have a break.

NARRATOR: Though he has sons of his own, Dastager was looking for a new boy in his life.


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What kind of boy are you looking for?

DASTAGER: The boy should be attractive, good for dancing, around 12 to 13 and good-looking. I tell their parents that I will train them.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: They give you permission?

DASTAGER: Yes, they do.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What do you promise them?


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: You look for poor boys who have nothing?

DASTAGER: Yes, they're poor.

NARRATOR: Dastager had arranged to pick up his new boy here at his uncle's barber shop. We have disguised the identity or the boy, who we'll call "Shafiq," for reasons that will become clear as his story unfolds.

[ More on disguising identities]

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [voice-over] He said the boy, Shafiq, was 11 years old, but to me he looked no more than 9.


Do you want to go with him?

"SHAFIQ": Yes.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: You want to stay with him?

"SHAFIQ": Yes.

DASTAGER: I'm taking him as an apprentice.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Did you know him before you came here?

"SHAFIQ": No, no.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [voice-over] It was clear Shafiq knew nothing about the world of bacha bazi he was about to enter.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Najibullah was meeting more of Dastager's bacha bazi friends, including Mestary, a former senior commander with the Northern alliance. Mestary is still a very powerful man, with close links to some of the biggest warlords in Afghanistan. He invited Najibullah to a gathering in the mountains with other commanders.


MESTARY: I had a boy partner when I was an unmarried commander. I had a boy because every commander had one. There's competition amongst the commanders. Without one, I couldn't compete with the others.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Do you have sex with them?

MESTARY: If they're willing to have sex, then I would. But if they're not, I won't.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: The boys want to have sex?

MESTARY: Yes, a lot of them.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: You wouldn't think twice?

MESTARY: I wouldn't. If they want to have sex, no problem. Many boys want sex. I would keep a boy if my wife agreed. If she didn't mind, I would keep one boy.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Is it usual for a wife to give permission?

MESTARY: In Afghanistan, husbands don't listen to their wives. But I'm a cultured person. I discuss it with my wife first.

NARRATOR: Two hundred and fifty miles west of Takhar, Najibullah tracked down another friend of Dastager's. He's known as the German.


GERMAN: This place is Khwaja Parsa.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: So why have we come here?

GERMAN: I'm looking for a boy I know. We'll find him and say we have a party, and we can do what we need to.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: If we find someone else, will you speak to them?

GERMAN: Sure. If we find someone, we will take him.

NARRATOR: The German acts as a bacha bazi pimp, supplying boys to some of the rich and powerful men in the region.


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: You're known as "the German" by local boys.



GERMAN: Because my moustache is a little blond, like the Germans.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: They think you look German?


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Which provinces do you go to?

GERMAN: I go to every province to have happiness and pleasure with boys. I want to have a boys' party. I really like to watch. Some boys are no good for dancing, but they can be used for other purposes.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What do you mean, "other purposes"?

GERMAN: I mean other activities.


GERMAN: I mean for sodomy and other sexual activities.

NARRATOR: The German couldn't find the boy he was looking for, but he did find other potential recruits wandering in the park.


GERMAN: Do you have a mobile?

BOY: Yes.

GERMAN: Who's that boy?

BOY: He's my brother.

GERMAN: Did your brother come with you?

BOY: That's my youngest brother.

GERMAN: Do they go to school?

BOY: Yes.

GERMAN: So you two have no jobs? I'll find you a job and call you.

BOY: Many thanks.

NARRATOR: Eleven-year-old Shafiq had been living with Dastager in a separate house he keeps for his bacha bazi boys.

DASTAGER: [subtitles] This boy is a very good boy.

NARRATOR: This is his first day of training with Rafi to become a dancing boy.

DASTAGER: [subtitles] I am going to keep him here so the musician can train him. He'll learn to dance and sing. I will keep him to get him used to my habits. I'll get a dancer to teach him dancing. We give the family money and tell them that I'll look after him. I'll get him clothes and give him money. I pay for all his expenses. He doesn't need to worry about anything.

NARRATOR: As Najibullah talked with Shafiq, it's just possible to hear Rafi, in the background, whispering the answers to him.


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Are you happy that you are starting your new life?

RAFI: Yes.

"SHAFIQ": Yes.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Are you happy to stay with him?

RAFI: Yes.

"SHAFIQ": Yes.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Why are you doing this?

RAFI: The money.

"SHAFIQ": I'm doing this for the money.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Do you need money?

"SHAFIQ": Yes.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Do you need the money for your family?

"SHAFIQ": For my family. For my family.

NARRATOR: Rafi told Najibullah the training would take a year- six months to teach Shafiq to sing and play music and another six months to dance.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [voice-over] As we left Shafiq in Rafi's hands, I knew the boy had no idea what else will be expected of him when he becomes a dancing boy. My fears for him grow.

A few days later, we were driving with Mestary and Dastager. They didn't realize our camera was still running as we overheard their conversation about what they had done with another young boy.


DASTAGER: In the Shadyan desert, there was a boy who came from Mazar. He was in the car. We were drinking, and anyone who wanted him would go to the car. He just lay there without moving.

MESTARY: We were outside drinking and the car was parked. One by one, they went into the car. He was really very attractive, wasn't he?

DASTAGER: Mind-blowing.


MESTARY: Around 13 or 14.

NARRATOR: Bacha bazi is such a taboo subject in Afghanistan that no one knows how widespread it really is. The first hints come from a recent report compiled for UNICEF by Nazir Alimy.

NAZIR ALIMY: [subtitles] I investigated and wrote an internal report. It showed that this does not only happen in the north. The report, which I investigated and compiled myself, showed it happening in the south, even in the capital of Afghanistan. It's true, they tell boys to wear girls' clothes and they're made to dance in front of many men. It's of great concern.

RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY, U.N. Special Rep. for Children and Armed Conflict: We are particularly concerned about what has been called the bacha bazi system or practice, where there are young boys increasingly associated with military commanders. This is-

NARRATOR: The U.N.'s Radhika Coomaraswamy was one of the first international figures to speak out publicly against bacha bazi.

RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY: We feel that a campaign should be run to raise awareness about this issue and to stop this practice.

Whenever I mentioned this topic to Afghans or even the diplomatic community, it was as if I had dropped a big brick. You know, at no point do they say this doesn't happen. It's just sort of a- a kind of, "Let's not talk about it. You know, it's a taboo subject."

NARRATOR: The producers showed her some early footage they'd gathered.

RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY: It's a disgusting practice. You saw that boy's face, that first one who was taken in that car, and that complete trusting innocence. I mean, it's just absolutely horrific. It's a form of slavery, you know, taking a child, keeping him. It's a form of sexual slavery. We have to ensure that we take them out of that reality because it's terribly exploitative of them.

[ Read her extended interview]

NARRATOR: Under Afghan criminal law, it is illegal to buy or sell a child or to commit sexual acts with children. Even the dancing boy parties are illegal because the boys are owned by masters. Although most parties take place in secret, this one was part of a large celebration for men at a wedding in Takhar. Rafi the musician was there. He'd organized the entertainment. That's where Najibullah met Abdullah, just 13.


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: How did you start?

ABDULLAH: I had a passion for it. I learned to dance myself.

NARRATOR: Abdullah's owner and Rafi sat nearby, listening to the interview.


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What does your family say about these dancing parties?

ABDULLAH: My family doesn't know.



NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Your friends and peers?

ABDULLAH: They don't know anything, either. They don't need to know.

RADHIKA COOMARASWAMY: The Afghan criminal justice system is not working and that is a big issue. The only way to stop bacha bazi is if you prosecute people who actually commit the crime, and that's what we need because the laws are there in the books against this practice.

NARRATOR: Najibullah went to see police authorities in Takhar province to ask if those laws are being enforced. The deputy chief of police is Mahmud Al-Hassan.

MAHMUD AL-HASSAN: [subtitles] If the people are caught, they will be severely punished. Whether generals, lawyers or any other upper ruling class, we will take legal action against them and they will be punished.

NARRATOR: But what about their own police officers, like Satar Khan, chief of the youth crime department? Najibullah's camera had discovered Officer Khan in the audience, watching the dancing at that illegal bacha bazi wedding party. Not only that, he found the police department's chief investigator, Jabar Khan, there, too.


NAZIR ALIMY: According to our research, the boys who dance are used for sex by powerful men. Many of the people who do this work for the government. They speak out against it but are abusers themselves.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Are you able to name anyone?

NAZIR ALIMY: I personally cannot mention any names because I am scared, as well. I can't name them because I love my life, too.

NARRATOR: Four months had passed. Shafiq had started his dancing lessons ahead of schedule. Dastager had chosen as his tutor his own favorite dancer, Imam.


IMAM: He's good. He's learning gradually. He's new, so it will take time, but I'm sure he'll learn it. Music is something that you get attracted to easily. I was like this, as well. I had a dance instructor when I first started, and now I have learned it properly. His life is going to be brilliant. It will be better as he goes along if he gets the proper encouragement,

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What do you think? Do you have an interest in this?

"SHAFIQ": Yes.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Are your parents happy with this?

"SHAFIQ": Yes.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Do you know what you're doing? You'll be dressing in women clothes?

"SHAFIQ": Yes.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Will you be able to do all this?

"SHAFIQ": Yes, I can do this.

NARRATOR: Imam had also been thinking about his future.

IMAM: [subtitles] I'm 15 now, so for another two or three years, I'll continue singing and dancing. After three years, I might be able to remain friends with these people, but I'll probably be too old for them and they might not like me anymore.

NARRATOR: After he turns 18, Imam said, he plans to become the master of his own stable of dancing boys.

IMAM: [subtitles] I'll probably keep between 20 to 30, if I can afford to. A boy should be 12 or 13 and of good character, a very polite boy. He should have no other interests except bacha bazi. I would like to keep them for myself, and they should be useful for me and my friends.

GHOLOM: [subtitles] Come here, bastard. I've got a toy boy, too.

NARRATOR: At his restaurant, Dastager's friend Gholom introduced Najibullah to the bacha bazi boy he owns, 14-year-old Nemat.

GHOLOM: [subtitles] He's Daddy's boy. Daddy's boy.

NARRATOR: Najibullah, sensing that all was not right with the boy, asked to speak to him alone.

NEMAT: [subtitles] We've fallen out. We woke up at 3 am and started fighting.

GHOLOM: [subtitles] Tell him to make peace.

NARRATOR: Gholom agreed.


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What's happening? Aren't you happy with your life?

NEMAT: I'm afraid of those who will beat or kill me. I'm afraid of being abducted. My life is completely ruined.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: So you're afraid of them, too?


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: In the bakery, do people ask you to go with them?


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What do they say?

NEMAT: They say, "Come and be with me." My life is completely ruined since so many people come and say "Come with me."

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: And if you don't go, then it's dangerous?

NEMAT: If I don't go, it's dangerous.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Have you ever heard about boys being killed over these matters?

ABDULLAH: Yes, things happen. If they stray, they get killed. Sometimes fighting happens amongst the men who own the boys. If you don't please them, they beat you, and people get killed.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Do you know any boys that have been killed?

ABDULLAH: Yes, of course.

NARRATOR: Najibullah would discover that he, too, knew one of those boys. Before he met Dastager, he had made an earlier trip to northern Afghanistan carrying a camcorder to document his initial research into bacha bazi. He'd filmed this party in the late summer of 2008. Fifteen-year old Hafiz was one of the most sought-after dancing boys in the region. Mestary knew the boy.


MESTARY: He was very attractive and could dance for ages without a break. I really liked him a lot.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Did you have sex with him?



MESTARY: I did want to have sex with him, but I couldn't get him because his owner was wealthy and powerful.

NARRATOR: When Najibullah returned to Afghanistan over a year later, he tried to find Hafiz again, only to be told the boy had been murdered.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Last year, this boy was killed in this area, so I'm trying to find his family, friends or someone to know him, to talk about it.

NARRATOR: He met Hafiz's brother, Javad, who said he would tell Najibullah the story. Javad and his mother told Najibullah that Hafiz's master, a well-known drug baron and warlord, had mistreated Hafiz. Javad said he helped his brother escape, and then the threats began.


JAVAD: They terrified him and warned him that if he didn't return, they would kill him. A few days before the incident, someone told me that two guys who hang with my brother had a deceitful plan.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What sort of plan was it?

JAVAD: The plan was to do something awful to him.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Do you mean rape him?

JAVAD: Yes, to rape him and sexually abuse him. I even warned my brother and he knew about it, but they caught him when he was alone. One of the men, named Ahmadullah, was a policeman. He supplied the gun to kill my brother.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: He brought the gun?

JAVAD: He brought the gun from the police station. It was Ahmadullah.

NARRATOR: Javad and his mother said Ahmadullah, the policeman, was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison. But just a few months later, he was released. They said local people believe that Hafiz's former owner paid off the authorities.

HAFIZ'S MOTHER: [subtitles] If only these people were punished, this kind of thing wouldn't happen. Whoever commits these crimes doesn't get punished. Power is power.

[ Watch this program on line]

NARRATOR: After weeks of negotiating with Dastager, he had finally agreed to allow Najibullah to visit Shafiq's rural village to meet the boy's family.

DASTAGER: [singing, subtitles]: Let me put my arm around you and kiss you. My beloved, let me hold you by myself. My beloved, let me hold you by myself.

NARRATOR: Although he had started the day in a good mood, as he and Rafi drove to the village, Najibullah sensed Dastager was growing suspicious of his motives. It was clear he regretted agreeing to the visit.



DASTAGER: Let's go.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: We'll talk with his father, then come back.

DASTAGER: For what?

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: To see both parents.

DASTAGER: Hurry up.

NARRATOR: Shafiq seemed different, too. He refused to hold the hand of the man who was introduced to Najibullah as his father.


FATHER: Come, boy. Sit up here.

DASTAGER: Come sit up here. Get up.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [voice-over] It seemed clear to me something has happened to Shafiq. He appeared disturbed. He wasn't the same young boy I had first met.


FATHER: My name is Barat. I'm from Sharekhana province.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Is this your son?

FATHER: Yes, and he's been away from me for about a year.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What's the benefit of giving them your son?

FATHER: Well, they send some income for the boy.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: They give you money?

FATHER: Yes, they give us money.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: When he is far away, do you miss him?

FATHER: Of course we miss him. But times are bad. We have no choice. We see him once a month.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Do you know what happens to him?

FATHER: We know, but well, he's a boy. Whatever happens will pass.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What does his mother say about it?

FATHER: His mother has no choice. If I say so, she has to accept.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Are you not afraid Dastager sleeps with your son?

FATHER: No, no. I trust Dastager.

NARRATOR: Later that day, as Najibullah was speaking with some other boys near the village, Dastager became extremely agitated.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Just I heard from Dastager that the boy has disappeared, and singer and Dastager are looking for the boy. But they're really worried and saying, "What should we say to his dad?" And he disappeared.

NARRATOR: Dastager and Rafi seemed to panic in their rush to find Shafiq.


DASTAGER: By Quran, he's disappeared. What happened to him? Mother-!

RAFI: The bastard disappeared.

DASTAGER: The bastard has gone.

RAFI: Mother-, how did he vanish?

DASTAGER: Mother-, what if he says something?

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Perhaps he went back to his father.

DASTAGER: I'll go after the mother-

RAFI: Don't worry at all. He's nothing but trouble. What if he says I tried to rape him or something?

NARRATOR: They failed to find Shafiq, and Dastager began to blame Najibullah for the boy's disappearance.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Suddenly, the boy, the young boy disappeared. And we asked Dastager to take us back to that boy and Dastager refused. And he said he doesn't want to filming anymore. So this is the time for us to leave the country.

[voice-over] As we left Takhar, I felt terrible about Shafiq and all the other boys. But there seemed little we could do. Given Dastager's power and connections, we couldn't go to the police. And we had been warned that staging a rescue could put a boy in even more danger. It felt like we had all abandoned the boys of Afghanistan.


NARRATOR: What would happen next was a story of intrigue and unexpected drama. It began when Najibullah returned to England to begin the editing of this film.

JAMIE DORAN, Producer: Rafi was the main guy. He's the guy who actually arranges the boys for the parties.


NARRATOR: He and producer Jamie Doran got news that Shafiq had been found and returned to Dastager. His training as a dancing boy was continuing with Rafi.

JAMIE DORAN: Did you hear him? Did you hear Rafi giving him the answers?

NARRATOR: Unwilling to stand back and do nothing, and together with FRONTLINE, they consulted Western authorities and child welfare experts in Afghanistan for advice. But because of Dastager's connections to the local authorities, Najibullah suggested a private effort, and enlisting an unlikely ally, the powerful warlord Mestary.

JAMIE DORAN: Has Mestary really changed much?

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: He seems completely changed. He's changed his mind, and he helped us a lot, basically.

[voice-over] Mestary had kept his own bacha bazi boys many years ago, but as I spoke him by phone, he seemed to have become more sensitive to the damage done by bacha bazi and he agreed to help Shafiq.

JAMIE DORAN: I think it's important to understand that Mestary is a far more powerful character than Dastager, and Dastager is well aware of the connections that Mestary has. So we felt pretty confident that Mestary would be able to persuade Dastager to give up the boy.

NARRATOR: It was mid-January 2010 when Mestary showed up in Takhar. He was expecting to take custody of Shafiq and return him to his family, but there was no sign of the boy. He went looking for Rafi. Then he called Najibullah with terrible news. Shafiq was dead. Rafi had told Mestary that several weeks earlier, there had been an accident, that a heavy fertilizer bag had fallen off a truck and killed Shafiq.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Then I spoke with Rafi on the phone and he said the same thing. He said that the boy has been killed and there is no Shafiq. And I were- we were really concerned, everyone. Then we put the phone down and we called him again and We told Mestary to chase around Takhar, to go everywhere and please find his dad or anyone. How can we prove that Shafiq is dead?

NARRATOR: Then Mestary used his contacts with Afghan government authorities to push for Rafi to be interrogated. Under pressure, Rafi finally admitted that he and Dastager had made up the whole story about the accident to avoid giving up the boy. Shafiq was alive somewhere near Takhar.

MESTARY: [subtitles] We had contacts and friends put pressure on Rafi. He finally he gave us an address in a district called Farkhar. It's a place in the Takhar region. That's where he said Shafiq was. Finally, we found the boy there and gave him back to his parents in the presence of witnesses.

NARRATOR: In February, Najibullah came back to Afghanistan. He'd been assured that the boy was safe, the authorities had intervened and helped relocate his family to another region of Afghanistan.

MESTARY: [subtitles] We arranged to get some money for them. It was around $1,800. I collected some of it from friends and some of it came from me. This way, he can restart his life and live comfortably. We want him to live in a province where no one can find him.

NARRATOR: In a long, secretive journey, Mestary took Najibullah to a mountain village far from Takhar, a location we've also had to disguise. There had always been a worry about returning the boy to his father, but getting to the village, Najibullah was surprised to discover that he was a different man than the one he had interviewed months earlier.


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Are You Shafiq's father?


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: When we came before, Rafi and Dastager introduced someone else as his father.

FATHER: I wasn't there at the time. He was the boy's uncle.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Can you give us proof that Shafiq is your son?

FATHER: Yes, this proves that Shafiq is our son.


FATHER: It's an ID card.

NARRATOR: Convinced he was indeed Shafiq's father, Najibullah told the family he had brought additional funds, personal contributions from the producers and FRONTLINE staff, to help the family resettle and see that Shafiq gets an education.


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Does Shafiq go to school?

FATHER: He hasn't attended school yet. But from now on, as our living conditions are much better, he will go to school.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Shafiq's face was completely different. He was so bright and he was so happy. And he had lots of cousins, was playing inside the house, outside in a very happy family.


How do you feel about being back with your parents?

"SHAFIQ": I feel good.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Have you started school or any courses?

"SHAFIQ": Yes. I'm doing an English course.


"SHAFIQ": Yes.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: What do you want to become in future?

"SHAFIQ": My wish is to study in school. I want to become a doctor in future. I want to be able to help other boys to improve their futures.

NARRATOR: Shafiq is reluctant to talk about his life with Dastager and Rafi, but he seems safe. And Najibullah is determined to keep connected to him and his family.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: As I told to Shafiq's dad, that every six months myself, I will come and visit and I will see Shafiq's life. I will go to Shafiq's school to make sure that he is safe and he study.

JAMIE DORAN, Producer: Afghanistan is a dangerous country for children and adults alike. The great thing about this new situation is that we've managed to get Shafiq away from Takhar and away from Dastager. He's under the protection of government. He's under the protection even of Mestary.

NARRATOR: Before he left Afghanistan, Najibullah had one last stop to make. He wanted to track down Dastager. They finally met on the outskirts of Takhar. Dastager was sticking to his story.


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Dastager where is Shafiq?

DASTAGER: Shafiq is dead.


DASTAGER: A sack fell on him and he died.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Can you tell us how and where he died?

DASTAGER: He was in a shop when a bag fell on him and he died.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: How long ago was this?

DASTAGER: Almost three months.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Where were you when this happened?

DASTAGER: I was in Takhar.

NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: Did you go to his funeral?


NAJIBULLAH QURAISHI: [voice-over] I'm not sure why he continued to lie about Shafiq. But it was a tricky situation, so I decided not to confront him.

NARRATOR: A month later, as news of this film reached Afghanistan, Mestary reported that the Afghan government was taking further action. An Afghan government source confirmed that police detectives from Kabul had arrested Rafi on abuse charges and that Dastager had fled from Takhar.

But just last week, sources in Takhar said both men were back in town and that Rafi, no longer in custody, was back in business supplying boys for bacha bazi parties.


Jamie Doran

Najibullah Quraishi

John Moffat

Mike Healy

Najibullah Quraishi
Mark Oulsen-Jenkins

Tracey 'H' Doran-Carter

Joseph Grant

Mark Dugas
Raoul Rosenberg

Melaney Doran

Penelope Bacle
Tom Greenwood

Barney Freeman
Ben Vella

This production contains material
provided by the United Nations
but the production firm is only
responsible for its content.

© 2010 Clover Films
All Rights Reserved


Tim Mangini

Chris Fournelle

Missy Frederick

Jim Ferguson
John MacGibbon
Michael H. Amundson

Mark Dugas
Tyrra Turner

Megan McGough

Mason Daring
Martin Brody

Jessica Smith

Diane Buxton

Sandy St. Louis

Peter Lyons

Elizabeth Lowell

Christopher Kelleher

Carla Borras

Lisa Palone

Eric Brass
Jay Fialkov
Janice Flood
Scott Kardel

Lisa Sullivan

Varonica Frye

Tobee Phipps

Maya Carmel, Entropy Media, LLC

Bill Rockwood, Entropy Media, LLC

Gretchen Gavett

Arun Rath

Sarah Moughty

Sam Bailey, Entropy Media, LLC

Robin Parmelee

Sharon Tiller

Ken Dornstein

Marrie Campbell

Jim Bracciale

Raney Aronson-Rath

Michael Sullivan

David Fanning

A Clover Films production for WGBH/FRONTLINE
in association with More 4 and NDR/ARD."


FRONTLINE is a production of WGBH/Boston,
which is solely responsible for its content.

ANNOUNCER: There's more on this story at FRONTLINE's Web site, where you can watch the full program again on line, get answers to frequently asked questions about this film and Shafiq's story, read more of the interviews with those who have researched and spoken out about the illegal practice of bacha bazi, learn how donations are helping Shafiq and his family in their new home. Then share your thoughts about this report at

Next time on FRONTLINE, a movement against the childhood vaccines.

- These mothers know what made their child sick!

- Something happened to our children, which then led to autism.

ANNOUNCER: But is their fear warranted?

- Twelve epidemiological studies showed that wasn't true.

ANNOUNCER: And is there a public health risk?

- It's an outbreak waiting to happen.

ANNOUNCER: The Vaccine War. Watch FRONTLINE.

FRONTLINE's The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan is available on DVD. To order, visit or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS. [$24.99 & s/h]

FRONTLINE is made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

With major funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. Additional funding is provided by the Park Foundation. And by the Frontline Journalism Fund.

posted april 20, 2010

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