An LGBTQ activist fled Afghanistan after receiving death threats from the Taliban. Now in Iran, he faces uncertainty over his future.
"Even if we are killed, we still exist because we are born like this"
Please note this article includes some descriptions of graphic incidents.
In January 2022, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report on the situation of the Afghan LGBTQ community after conducting interviews with 60 individuals between October and December 2021. The report stated that many of those interviewed “reported being attacked, sexually assaulted, or directly threatened by members of the Taliban because of their sexual orientation or gender identity”.
According to HRW, others reported abuse from family members, neighbours, and romantic partners who now support the Taliban or believed they had to “take action against LGBTQ people close to them to ensure their own safety”. As a result, some interviewees said they fled their homes after being pursued or attacked.
Arseen, not his real name, is an LGBTQ rights activist from the western province of Herat. He tells Afghan Witness (AW) how he was forced to leave his home after receiving death threats from the Taliban. Before the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, Arseen was in his second year of nursing studies at one of the medical institutions in Herat. His goal was to one day qualify as a doctor, but after the Taliban seized Herat on August 13, 2021 and the economic instability that ensued, Arseen could no longer continue his studies.
Prior to the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, life wasn’t easy for those identifying as LGBTQ, however, the situation has significantly worsened. “Life was alright; no one was bothering us,” Arseen replies when asked about life before the Taliban takeover. He tells AW that the threats began increasing after he was interviewed by a western media channel about the LGBTQ community in Afghanistan. “One day, they [the Taliban] will find me. I can’t live here [Afghanistan] anymore,” says Arseen.
In August 2021, Pink News UK, who describe themselves as the “world’s largest and most influential LGBTQ+ media brand”, released an article headlined “Taliban cut Afghan man’s body into pieces to ‘show what they do with gay people.”
Arseen, fearful that he would be next, desperately found a way to leave Afghanistan. The nearest country he could find safety in was neighbouring Iran, where he has been living for more than seven months. The activist says he still feels unsafe and witnesses discrimination here, too. Iran has made global headlines recently due to the widespread protests against the clerical establishment, which erupted two months ago.
Arseen says that after leaving Afghanistan, two of his friends, who were also part of the Afghan LGBTQ community, were murdered by the Taliban.
“Two of them were killed in Herat,” he alleges. “Others were beaten and tortured. Some of them disappeared in Kabul. We heard they were dead inside a house - I saw their pictures.”
Arseen attempted many times to get his name on evacuation lists to Germany and Canada. He tells AW that Najib Faizi, an LGBTQ activist and refugee living in Hamburg, Germany – and the first man from Afghanistan to publicly declare himself a drag queen – prepared a list of vulnerable LGBTQ community members in Afghanistan who needed to be brought to safety.
Arseen says he has not had any response to his requests for safety but confirms that others were evacuated to Germany – his friends were in India when they received letters confirming their relocation. “I did not receive any letters,” Arseen says. “I was stuck in Afghanistan and did not have any option other than coming to Iran.”
Rainbow Railroad, a North American charitable organisation helping LGBTQ people escape persecution, evacuated 29 individuals to the UK in October 2021, while calling on the US and Canadian governments to show “moral leadership” and urgently work with them to move more people to safety.
In the meantime, Arseen continues his activism from Iran, where he focuses on spreading awareness via online platforms and sharing articles on LGBTQ rights in local languages.
“Not only in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran, but the whole world must accept us because we are born like this, god created us like this, we don’t fake it – it’s wrong to think that we are faking our feelings,” he says.
Arseen says his family – who are still in Afghanistan – accept his sexuality, and he is regularly in touch with them. However, he emphasises that the rest of the world must accept the existence of those identifying as LGBTQ.
“No one likes to put their lives in danger to achieve their dreams - our dream is equality,” he adds. “You may be reading the story of a person from your family or close circle; you must accept that people like us exist in society. We exist. Even if we are killed, we still exist because we are born like this. What will they do with every new generation then?”
Interview by Afghan Witness