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Fear then hope gives way to chaos as a married, gay father attempts to flee Afghanistan

I could never tell my children why I was leaving Afghanistan.

Our Correspondent in Kabul

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Artwork by Leigh Brown for Outspoken Middle East

I am a Panjshir gay man living in the Taliban’s Afghanistan. No more misery could gather in one sentence.

As I write this, the golden sunlight of Kabul’s autumn reminds me of when I fell in love with the man of my life. Our relationship was not a typical relationship between two gay men but, come on, we are from Afghanistan. Even before the Taliban regained power, it was not the freest part of the world, but we felt free enough to fall in love. Every relationship has its hiccups, but we never thought ours would end as it did.

I am 40, and I have four children. My wife is sitting right next to me. Yes, I am an Afghan gay man forced to stay in the closet and lie to his family, much like the rest of the LGBT community in Afghanistan.

As the only son in my family, I was forced to marry when I was 16 years old. I spent many days and nights with tears and regret. No one knew about my pain. But still, I was lucky to spend my youth in the 20 years of international presence in Afghanistan.

Now that I think about the last 20 years, it was like a golden dream. I had children and a wife, and there was the Internet, and thanks to all of the aid workers from all over the world, an underground scene was formed for the Afghan LGBT community. It was still terrifying, but we were very hopeful.

Influenced by the international LGBT rights movement, Afghan media and even some officials started acknowledging the community and educating society. Whenever I saw a piece on television or an article in a newspaper, I felt so optimistic for the future of the LGBT community in Afghanistan.

After many years of searching and dating, I met my man. He is also married. We had our double lives, but we had each other. We even started meeting each other’s families and became family friends. Everybody thought we were brothers or close friends. We were planning for the future of our kids and our future. We both felt guilty and bad for our wives, who were forced by their families to marry us, but what could we do except try to empower them to survive in the patriarchal society of Afghanistan?

We never thought the country might once again fall into the hands of the Taliban. We remembered, in the 1990s, when the Taliban lined up homosexuals in the corners of walls and then toppled the walls over their heads, crushing the men beneath.

Then on August 15, 2021, that happened again, marking the nationwide return to Sharia law. This chapter of life in Afghanistan had returned.

I will never forget that day. In the morning, I texted my boyfriend to arrange to see each other. I told him we might never have the chance to be together again. It was a strange moment. We walked alongside each other, hand in hand, in an empty park. We never did that before in public, but I thought now we might not ever get the chance. We wanted to show our love to each other. We were hoping for the best but planning for the worst. We planned to go to Panjshir, his home, if the Taliban entered Kabul, and from there we could leave the country.

A few hours later, panic spread everywhere. We never imagined that our lives would fall to the Taliban so quickly. I was at work when I saw pictures of the Taliban’s fighters in Kabul on social media. I gathered my things from the office, went back home, and did not leave the house. I felt threatened. I did not know what to do. I was not sure if we needed to trigger our emergency plan to flee. Leaving your home is not that easy. I sent my boyfriend a message then deleted our communication. I wanted to know what his plan was. Are we going to Panjshir? When should we leave?

I was worried about my children. I was concerned about my wife, but my own life, as a known gay man in Afghanistan’s LGBT community, was also in grave danger.

Night fell, and still no word from him. I knew to not contact him again, in case the Taliban was watching communications. I thought, how strange, that only a few hours before that we were walking hand in hand in Kabul’s central park. I wanted to go and knock on his door to see how he was, but I didn’t dare. I thought he might not feel safe if I did that. The Taliban always hated Panjshir, and we could have been targeted because of our known ethnicity and, of course, for our secret.

A couple of days passed with almost no news from him and his family. I thought they were in their survival mode, as were we.

A few days later, when countries started evacuating vulnerable Afghans, a non-Afghan gay friend sent me a few links and told me to email international LGBT organizations before it was too late. A wave of hope flamed in me. Surely, if I explained our situation, we would all go, his family and mine. We would have a free life. I also broke the silence and sent a blunt message to my boyfriend to inform him about the solution that I found.

Artwork by Leigh Brown for Outspoken Middle East

Hours after I sent the email, one of these organizations, which specifically worked to save gay people in danger, contacted me with a series of strange questions. They wanted to verify whether I was gay or not. Although I had written to them in detail in the email that I was a gay man and had given two or three references to my foreign friends to confirm my homosexuality if necessary, they still asked questions. I was asked to share WhatsApp chats I had with my boyfriend. They also requested screenshots from LGBT Facebook groups to which I belong. One LGBT activist in the U.S. accused me of lying because I have kids and a wife. It was very disappointing. How could I explain to these people what we are going through? How could I say, even before the Taliban, for obvious reasons we were not keeping content related to our sexual orientation on our mobile phones?

And still no word from my boyfriend. One of the organizations asked for his consent, and I couldn’t find him.

On August 25, I received a text message that they can evacuate me soon. I was told that my family should stay in Kabul and because my boyfriend didn’t reply, he is not eligible.

The organizer, based in Canada, told me to go to the southern gate of Kabul Airport as soon as possible. She told me there was a bus to take a group of LGBT people to the airport on August 26. I was given the bus plate number. I must be there at seven in the morning, or I will not have another chance to leave.

Should I go? Should I leave him and my family? Once I’m free, will I be able to help them leave? Where is he? Why doesn’t he talk to me?

Five minutes before seven o’clock I reached the main entrance of the airport. Thousands were stranded, and everyone was in a hurry to find their way to the airport. It was a few minutes past seven when I saw the bus I was looking for. It was packed, and there was no space for me. They closed the door and left.

When I looked around, there were more than 30 other people who couldn’t get on the bus. Most of them were gay and transgender people. Among us were three or four lesbians. It was the first time I had seen that many LGBT people together in Kabul. I was already familiar with one or two of them, but we didn’t dare to talk. Everyone was in fear and dreaded revealing their identities in public while the Taliban were armed to the teeth on the side of the road.

Minutes later, another bus arrived. We boarded the second bus to the airport.

As we approached the airport entrance, more than 20 other buses were waiting in a queue in front of us to get permission from the Taliban to enter the airport compound.

The bus was perhaps the most multifarious place that I ever saw inside Afghanistan. LGBT people from all different ethnic backgrounds: a Hazara transgender was talking to a Tajik gay man; a Lesbian from Kabul was listening to another woman from Harat. For a few moments, I felt very good but shortly, I realized the bus would catch the eyes of Taliban fighters. I had a mask on my face and tried as much as possible not to be recognized. I was trying to find words to say if we get caught by the Taliban. I was still thinking about my family and children. It was the first time in my life I had made such a decision. I wanted to leave my family, Kabul, and Afghanistan forever. I could never tell my children why I was leaving Afghanistan. But I told them that I would facilitate their departure as soon as I got out of Afghanistan. I asked my wife to tell our family friends that I would help them to leave.

I can not express the feeling I had that day in words. My children were staying in Kabul, and I had to go to survive. Where? Somewhere that my sexual orientation was not considered a crime. To somewhere that I can live freely without fear.

When our bus was still stuck in the traffic, I went through our family photos. For a moment, I decided to get off the bus and go back home, but when I saw the Taliban on the road with long hair, dull, rough faces and guns in hand, death came over me, and I wished to fly and fly as soon as possible.

It was a hot day, and even warmer inside our crowded bus. We waited another four hours without moving. Ahead of us was a major checkpoint where the fighters were questioning people and checking their documents. That made me even more anxious. If the Taliban asked us who we were and to which organization we belonged, we did not have an answer.

On a few occasions, random people climbed up the bus and asked through the window who we were. In an hour, we were told the Americans instructed the Taliban not to allow anyone to enter. The reason was not clear. It was probably one of the most frustrating messages I have ever received. I lost hope of life in a minute, and the fear of death filled my whole being. Others were the same. We were all pale and anxious and asked each other, what would happen now?

I made one of the most complex decisions of my life, and I left the bus. Another guy followed me. We went and sat on a corner of the road out of reach of the Taliban. He told me about his life. How hard he studied in school and now he has no hope for the future. We grieved together and talked about the problems and hardships of being gay. It was after five in the evening, and there were still many people around the airport entrance without anyone being allowed to enter. We saw other people from our bus trying to get into the airport.

I could not stand on my feet because I was so tired. It was pointless to stay longer.  Moments later, the media reported that more than 150 people were killed and wounded in an attack at Kabul airport. I thought to myself, if we were allowed to enter the airport, I would not be alive now. But, maybe that would have been a relief, finally an end to this miserable life.

Foreign organizations that assisted us in leaving Kabul sent several emails urging us not to leave our homes and to reach Afghanistan’s land borders as soon as possible if we feel our lives in Kabul are in danger. But they said they cannot do anything to help us and that we should decide how to escape on our own. They can only provide security guidance, and that’s it. Given that Afghanistan’s borders with neighboring countries are still closed, and many Afghans have flocked to the border, I did not think LGBT people would dare to cross the land border, at least in these circumstances.

Every day I ask myself what will happen to my fellow passengers on that bus, and to me. There was much fear and anxiety during that trip to Kabul Airport for several hours, but we were supportive of each other. We were together.

We had that same sense of being a member of a community that we experienced over the last 20 years. Life was hard, but we breathed, worked, and manifested in the hope of a better time. But that rainbow of our dreams no longer exists.

I am still here, in Kabul. The golden sunlight of Kabul’s autumn reminds me of when I fell in love with the man of my life who, now I know, joined the so-called national resistance front in Panjshir. The Taliban occupied their village. His family is still there, but no one knows where he is.

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