By Ben Westcott, CNN
Growing up as a teenager in Afghanistan, Rabia Balkhi felt lucky.
Despite being born in a country with a long history of discrimination against its LGBTQ people, Balkhi’s family accepted her as a lesbian.
Now Balkhi says that rare acceptance has put all their lives at risk, as the new Taliban leadership in Kabul unleashes a wave of physical violence and fear on Afghanistan’s gay, lesbian and transgender population.
As soon as the Taliban recaptured Kabul in August, Balkhi and her family went into hiding. The names of Balkhi and five other LGBTQ people inside Afghanistan who spoke to CNN for this story have been changed for safety reasons — Balkhi chose to use the name of a famous female Afghan poet who she considered “brave” and a “hero.”
The 20-year-old university student is one of hundreds of LGBTQ people in Afghanistan who are urging advocates outside the country to help them escape the Taliban regime. Two LGBTQ activists outside of Afghanistan told CNN they had separate lists each with hundreds of names of people who want to flee.
“The situation gets worse every day … fear of arrest is part of life now and I have such stress that I can’t even sleep,” Balkhi told CNN by text message from an undisclosed location.
It’s not clear yet how severely the Taliban will enforce its strict religious laws against Afghanistan’s LGBTQ citizens. No official statement has been made, but in an interview with Germany’s Bild newspaper in July, one Taliban judge said there were only two punishments for homosexuality — stoning or being crushed under a wall.
In response to a request for comment, a Taliban spokesman told CNN they had no official plans for their LGBTQ population yet. “When there is anything I will keep you updated,” he said.
The LGBTQ people in Afghanistan CNN spoke with said they had heard reports of friends, partners and members of their community being attacked and raped. And they were terrified that Islamic fundamentalists and vigilante groups emboldened by the new regime could do the same to them — or worse.
Balkhi said one gay man in her neighborhood had been raped after being found by the Taliban.
Some LGBTQ people told CNN they have been hiding in single rooms and basements for weeks, staring at the walls or endlessly watching their phones for any hint of a way out.
Some are being hidden by friends who are helping keep watch or bringing them supplies. Others told CNN they are alone, isolated and running out of food.
But all said they feel abandoned by the international community, with evacuation flights out of the country now finished and the Taliban pushing to normalize relations with Western nations. LGBTQ people say they need help to escape Taliban fighters before they are discovered and forced to face the new regime’s brutal laws.
Even before the Taliban took power in August, life wasn’t easy for LGBTQ people in Afghanistan.
A 2020 US State Department report on Afghanistan said LGBTQ people faced “discrimination, assault and rape” as well as harassment and arrest by authorities. “Homosexuality was widely seen as taboo and indecent,” the report said.
Under the previous government, sexual relations between people of the same gender were illegal and punishable by up to two years in jail.
Those laws were not always enforced, but they did leave LGBTQ people open to extortion and abuse by authorities, according to a UK government report published in 2013.
The LGBTQ people in Afghanistan that CNN spoke to said before the Taliban takeover they regularly faced discrimination, including verbal abuse and the threat of physical violence, but there was at least a space in society for them.
Nemat Sadat, an LGBTQ Afghan author who lives in the United States, said the country’s gay, lesbian and transgender citizens had helped the country’s cultural life flourish in the 20 years since the Taliban’s last rule.
“(Transgender people) dominated the makeup industry and worked as makeup artists … There were concerts and fashion shows and all of this was dominated by the LGBTQ community,” he said.
LGBTQ people who spoke to CNN said while very few felt comfortable or safe enough to be openly gay, lesbian or transgender before the takeover, many were able to quietly build lives true to their identities.
Balkhi said for a while she had a girlfriend, who she was able to see secretly on weekends. Hilal, a 25-year-old gay man, said he used to have a boyfriend and had even worked openly to advocate for LGBTQ rights in Afghanistan.
Now in hiding, Hilal said few predicted how fast the situation in Afghanistan would deteriorate. “We couldn’t imagine that the government would collapse so quickly,” he said.
Living in fear
After the Taliban took charge, Balkhi said being a woman had effectively ended her dreams of finishing her university studies in Afghanistan.
As a lesbian, she faces an even graver threat.
In an interview with Reuters in August, one of the Taliban’s top decision makers, Waheedullah Hashimi, said under the fundamentalist group the country would be governed by “Sharia law and that is it.”
Under the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law, homosexuality can be punished by death.
Balkhi said when she and her family heard the Taliban had entered the city, they went into hiding, leaving their home in Kabul and moving to a new secret location to escape detection.
“The Taliban have exact information about every family here,” she said.
Balkhi fears her family could be attacked or killed for knowingly hiding an LGBTQ person. Unable to sleep out of fear of being discovered, she said she is worried if the Taliban find her, they will stone her to death for being a lesbian.
One gay man who has been in touch with Sadat, the US-based LGBTQ advocate, said he told him he watched from his hiding place in the ceiling as Taliban fighters beat the friend who had refused to divulge his location. Sadat shared a video with CNN of the beating, taken by the man in secret.
Another gay man CNN is calling Hasan said he had been hiding in a friend’s house in Kabul for more than a month and was running out of food and money.
A week ago, Hasan got a phone call from an unknown number that he said implied he was being targeted for being LGBTQ. When Hasan asked who was calling, a man’s voice replied, “Do not talk too much, we will find you wherever you are,” Hasan said. He has since changed his number.
Hilal, who used to advocate for LGBTQ Afghans, said men came around to his family’s house asking for him shortly after Kabul fell. “They made threats to my brother, and they said to him that if I return home, they will kill me (for being LGBTQ),” he said.
For three weeks, Hilal has been hiding in the basement of a friend’s house.
The former university student said he has no money, little food and has accepted he may never be able to go back to his family’s home.
“We are LGBT. It is not our fault. It has been written as such in my destiny, in my spirit … No one can change this. All they can do is to kill me,” Hilal said.
Abandoned and angry
The US and its allies raced to evacuate thousands of people from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport before the withdrawal deadline of August 31.
But LGBTQ Afghans, activists and NGOs told CNN they knew of very few people in their community who had managed to escape Afghanistan on those flights or across land borders.
Most people said they didn’t know anyone who had managed to get out.
Hilal, the LGBTQ activist, said he was furious at the US government and other Western countries who he felt had abandoned him and other gay, lesbian and transgender Afghans. “Journalists, women’s rights activists or those who worked with foreigners, they were removed … but nothing has been done for us,” he said.
“We will definitely be killed … We are asking to (be) evacuated immediately from Afghanistan.”
Multiple organizations and activists CNN spoke to are looking into ways to safely extract LGBTQ people from Afghanistan, but so far no safe route has been found.
Rainbow Railroad is an NGO which helps LGBTQ people around the world escape persecution. Executive Director Kimahli Powell said evacuating LGBTQ people from Afghanistan was especially hard as they were often alone, in hiding and unable to contact each other.
“Many of the evacuations have been families or large communities, and that’s been harder for LGBTQ communities,” he said.
Some of them are so desperate they are falling victim to scams, including an offer of fake Ugandan visas which gave many individuals false hope, he said. Some told CNN they refuse to answer local phone numbers for fear the Taliban have tracked them down.
Powell said he believed routes out of Afghanistan are available to extract LGBTQ people, but he said Rainbow Railroad’s focus now is on reaching people most at risk.
“(It’s uncertain) what the Taliban takeover looks like around access to borders and access to migration, but we’re committed to trying to find pathways to keep people safe and get people out,” he said.
‘God built us like this’
As they wait for help, some LGBTQ Afghans told CNN they are trying to hide among the broader community.
Ritu Mahendru, a human rights advocate with more than 10 years’ experience working in Afghanistan, said at least one transgender woman had told her she was growing out her beard and dressing like a man to avoid attracting attention.
One 24-year-old lesbian told CNN she had married a male friend to keep her safe until she could escape the country.
And, a 25-year-old gender non-conforming gay person said they had tried to appear more masculine, but a Taliban fighter beat them with a plastic pipe when they were seen walking in a street. “He cursed me, and he said, ‘Don’t you know how to walk like a man?'” the 25-year-old said.
Balkhi said lesbians like her have one advantage over other LGBTQ people — as some women hide their faces in public, they are able to disguise their identities under chadri, a cloak-style garment that covers the body and face.
Last month she and her family wore chadris to Kabul airport, hoping to board an evacuation flight out, but they were pushed back by the Taliban. Balkhi said they were told that no Afghans were allowed to enter the airport, and when they tried to press the point, they were threatened with whips until they left.
“I don’t know if I can get out of here, but I know I can’t live here with this situation,” she said.
Others are dropping out of contact. Sadat said every day he is losing touch with more and more LGBTQ people on his list, as he struggles to try to find a way to get them out of Afghanistan.
“I’m not sure if they’re dead or they escaped out of the country and unable to receive my calls. A lot of LGBTQ Afghans are losing hope and telling me they are begging for food or starving,” he said.
It’s unclear how long they’ll have to wait.
Hilal said he has no idea how he can safely cross a land border because doing so would mean revealing his identity — and as a former public advocate, he worries about being recognized.
He said he doesn’t think LGBTQ people will survive in Afghanistan.
“I want life and democracy,” he said. “We are human, we want life like other people, but other people can live and we cannot.
“It is not our fault that we’re LGBTQ. God built us like this.”
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CNN’s Jeevan Ravindran contributed to this article.