Reporting on war-torn Afghanistan is a challenge in itself, but for former AFP Kabul bureau chief Anuj Chopra there was an equally urgent issue to bring to the world’s attention: child sex slavery within the country’s police force.
Chopra’s exclusive report into how the Taliban had exploited a major weakness of US-backed Afghan policemen – the practice of “bacha bazi” or institutionalised child sex slavery – to infiltrate their ranks was carried around the world. The coverage by the AFP Kabul bureau shone a much-needed light on the abuses suffered by children, which led to the Afghan government launching an inquiry into the practice. It also earned Chopra a Human Rights Press Award for best English News Feature.
“It was a tremendous team effort by Anuj and the entire Kabul bureau which is one of the strongest in the region,” said Giles Hewitt, AFP’s Chief Editor for Asia.
A year on, Chopra says an equally important outcome of the story was forcing people to talk about the issue.
“Our reporting acted as a chink in the wall of silence, paving the way for a more open conversation about bacha bazi. Silence is no longer an option,” he said.
Chopra’s report not only exposed child sex slavery within the highest ranks of Afghan security forces, but it revealed how the Taliban was exploiting the practice by using the children to mount deadly attacks against their captors.
“The young boy slaves are victimised twice – first as sex slaves by their captors, then turned into killers by the Taliban,” Chopra added.
Having exposed the brutal practice Chopra was shocked at the apparent indifference of authorities towards the problem. Getting something done would be an entirely new challenge which saw Chopra spend months tracking down young victims. He discovered that, contrary to the widely held belief that poor families sold their children into slavery, many had been kidnapped.
Chopra, now Riyadh bureau chief, said: “I felt angry – and helpless – over the apathy and inaction to save the enslaved children. In a way, those feelings propelled me to keep reporting doggedly.”
In the year since the bureau’s story made global headlines, the Afghan government has enacted penalties against bacha bazi in its penal code for the first time, a key longstanding demand by campaigners – though only time will tell if it is ever enforced.