Since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan at the end of August, repression has intensified against members of the LGBT+ community. Fearing for their lives, its members are forced to live in hiding. « We know for sure that the Taliban have a ‘blacklist’ of people to shoot, » reveals Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian NGO that helps Afghans threatened with death to obtain asylum.
Life for the LGBT+ community in Afghanistan has never been a smooth ride. Love between two people of the same sex has always been a taboo subject in this conservative Muslim-majority country. Even under the previous Western-backed government, same-sex relationships were punishable by law and could lead to two years in prison. But since the Taliban took over the reins of power after the U.S. withdrawal, the situation has deteriorated rapidly.
While the new rulers of Afghanistan have not officially disclosed their policy against homosexuals, it is becoming increasingly clear that they follow a strict interpretation of sharia law, the Islamic law, which states that non-heterosexual relationships are punishable by death.
« These are terrifying times, » Kimahli Powell, the director of Rainbow Railroad, the only international pro-LGBT organization still on the ground in Afghanistan, tells France 24.
« We now know for sure that the Taliban have a hit list of LGBT+ people, » he says.
According to Kimahli Powell, the Taliban took advantage of the power vacuum in the days and weeks leading up to the U.S. withdrawal to develop this hit list. In particular, they would have recorded the names of people that human rights groups wanted to evacuate.
« After the fall of Kabul, there was a lot of information sharing, » says Rainbow Railroad’s director, who believes that Afghans who failed to flee the country were left vulnerable and their identities publicly exposed.
The Taliban would have used this list to conduct an active repression, organizing ambushes or taking advantage of the leakage of digital data.
« Some people contacted us to say that they had received a mysterious email from an individual who claimed to know our association and asked for personal information and passports. We then realized that there had been a leak, » the human rights defender said.
Calls for help multiply
Founded in 2006, the NGO Rainbow Railroad aims to help LGBT+ victims of violence and persecution leave their countries. In 2017, the organization gained global notoriety by helping 100 gay people escape a deadly purge in Chechnya.
For several months, the NGO has been focusing its efforts on Afghanistan. Its mission is to find a safe place for threatened members of the LGBT+ community to live, and then arrange their escape « by land or air » to a permanent place of refuge in a foreign country.
« I can assure you that the number of requests for assistance will spike this year, » predicts Kimahli Powell. In Afghanistan alone, the NGO says it has already received 700 requests and at least 200 more people « are in need of immediate evacuation ».
Rainbow Railroad typically receives about 4,000 requests for protection each year from around the world.
In August, on the eve of the departure of U.S. troops, the NGO came to the aid of dozens of particularly at-risk LGBT+ Afghans by orchestrating their evacuation by military aircraft. Last Friday, 29 people threatened with death were also able to reach Great Britain thanks to the association.
« Some Afghan citizens were happy to support us, » says the activist. « But since all the pro-LGBT organizations have had to pack up, it’s really just us here. This has led us to collaborate with other NGOs that have no ties to the LGBT+ cause but they too have helped bring people out. »
Denounced by her own family
Kimahli Powell particularly remembers a recent case he was working on. While seeking safe haven for a member of the LGBT+ community, that person’s home was targeted by a Taliban raid.
« They came in, out of uniform, and ransacked the house. They found information that led them to suspect him of belonging to the LGBT+ community. They inspected his phone to confirm their suspicions, then they humiliated and physically assaulted him. Then they found his passport and burned it. »
« This person is still in Afghanistan, but our job of sheltering him is now much more complicated, » he laments.
According to Kimahli Powell, Afghanistan is looking more and more like a « no-go zone. » There is uncertainty about what new rules the unpredictable Taliban might impose on the population. In this climate of fear, Afghan families are not hesitating to denounce members of their own family for their alleged membership in the LGBT+ community.
« As I said, it’s really a terrifying time and some people are trying to get into the good graces of the Taliban. I think everyone is trying to navigate this new environment and when the Taliban identifies an LGBT+ person as a target, that’s an incentive to report them, » says the Rainbow Railroad director.
Without the support and protection of their loved ones, LGBT+ people find themselves more isolated and vulnerable than ever. In the meantime, they have no choice but to hide and live underground.
« This is the most complicated mission we’ve ever had to do. And it still is today, » concludes Kimahli Powell.