Death squads hunt Iraq's gays, emos

2012-03-12 22:38

Baghdad - The man holds up two pictures of his friend, which tell the story of what it now means to be gay in Iraq.

One photograph, which the man keeps on his mobile phone, is a portrait of a handsome youth with a stylish haircut. The other, a printed snapshot taken last month, shows the body of the same young man lying sprawled in the back of a white pickup truck, his head disfigured by blunt trauma.

According to a police report, Saif Asmar was found bludgeoned to death in the afternoon on February 17.

"They laid him down on the pavement and smashed his head with a cement block," said his 25-year-old friend, who works as a doctor's assistant and also as a gay activist under the pseudonym Roby Hurriya. He did not disclose his real name.

Homosexuals have lived in fear in Iraq for years, notably since religious militia claimed control of the streets in the sectarian warfare that followed the US-led invasion of 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein.

But Hurriya - whose adopted surname means "Freedom" in Arabic - says a surge in killings in the past two months is by far the worst he has seen.

Since the start of this year, death squads have been targeting two separate groups - gay men, and those who dress in a distinctive, Western-influenced style called "emo", which some Iraqis mistakenly associate with homosexuality.

At least 14 young men have been bludgeoned to death in the last three weeks in east Baghdad, an area dominated by Shi'ite Muslims, according to local security and medical sources who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Killings have been reported by other methods and in other cities as well. Since national authorities are not recording the incidents as a special category, the total is not known.

Spiky hair and black clothes

In recent days, militiamen from Shi'ite groups, mainly in the Sadr City district, have circulated lists of names of people targeted for killings. The threats refer to "obscene males and females", understood to refer to both gays and emos - an American teenage subculture of spiky hair and black clothes that has spread to Iraq.

Hurriya says he believes at least 200 men have been murdered in recent years either for being gay or appearing effeminate. He personally knows 66 of them.

During an interview at the Reuters bureau in central Baghdad, he opens a satchel and brings out a series of photographs of bludgeoned corpses of young men found on the streets of Baghdad. He has been documenting the killings and running a safe house for gay men.

"We, as the gay community are connected, like a string. We know if anything bad has happened to any of us," he said.

"A Shi'ite cleric from Sadr City who is gay called me a few days ago and told me that some gay people were killed and their bodies were dumped near Sadr City. He helped me reach the place and take some photos."

The apparent spread of the violence in recent weeks to heterosexual youth who dress in emo style has caused panic among young Iraqis, many of whom have experimented with various forms of Western dress as war subsided and militia left the streets.

Emo, a once-obscure genre of American "emotional" punk rock, became a mainstream subculture in the West in the past decade. In Iraq, it appeals to youth - male and female - hungry for self-expression in a conservative, often violent culture.

Iraqi youths who call themselves emos typically wear long or spiky hair, tight jeans, T-shirts, silver chains and items with skull logos. In recent days they have been rushing to barbers to get their hair cut.

Shops which sprouted in recent years selling clothing and jewellery with skulls and band logos have quickly taken down their emo displays.

Special police

Iraq's government, dominated by the Shi'ite majority that was oppressed under Saddam, may not be helping. The Interior Ministry added to the atmosphere of menace last month by releasing a statement that labelled the emo culture "Satanism".

It said a special police force would stamp it out.

Hafidh Jamal, 19, who works in a shoe store in the upscale Karrada neighbourhood, said he used to dress in black with his hair long in the back, but he fled his home in Sadr City this week and cut his hair. Two friends were killed for dressing in the emo style, he said.

"Let them kill me. They killed my close friends," he told Reuters. "I support emo. I love this phenomenon."

Baghdad's gays are searching for places to hide.

One man, who goes by the name Haifa, said he fled Iraq for Syria during the sectarian violence in 2006, but returned to Baghdad two months ago because of war now in Syria.

Though homosexual behaviour is widely scorned, even illegal, in much of the Arab and Muslim world, Haifa had been able to live fairly comfortably as a gay man in Syria - as many gays had in Iraq under Saddam's largely secular rule.

But in Baghdad, where clerics who condemn homosexuality as a sin now hold sway, he quickly learned he would be hunted. A picture from a few months ago shows him with long hair and a black T-shirt. He now wears his hair short under a baseball cap and dresses conservatively in a wool coat and rugby shirt.

Excuse us if we kill him

"When I returned with shoulder-length hair, everybody, including my family, warned me that with that hair I could be killed. I left my house in Kadhimiya and now I move from place to place, afraid of getting killed," he told Reuters.

"Some people phoned my brother and said, 'We will kill your brother if we catch him. Please excuse us if we do.'"

Haifa is now trying to get a passport so he can escape Iraq and go to neighbouring Jordan where he hopes he will be safe.

Noor, a 19-year-old gay man, fled Baghdad a week ago for Basra in the south, hoping he would be safer, after he heard about the murders.

"We are young men, and everywhere in Iraq we should be free to do whatever we want, to wear what we like, cut our hair how we like," he told Reuters.

"We have not hurt anyone. Why are they doing this to us?"

  • Alfred - 2012-03-13 07:12

    Doesn't religion just bring out the best in people? Everyday I read about the insanity brought on by religion and people wonder why the 'new atheists' are so vocally anti-religion.

      zaatheist - 2012-03-13 08:12

      And they want us to STFU and stop criticising so they can continue there persecutions in the dark. The last time they go away with that was called the "Dark Ages".

      J-Man - 2012-03-13 09:04

      yes...Pathetic isn't it? Preaching "tolerance" and "forgiveness"..then turning around and killing people. Hypocrites. I'm so glad I live in 2012.

  • Alex Panicco - 2012-03-13 07:30

    And i think to myself... What a wonderful world...

  • betsy.compaan - 2012-03-13 08:15

    How can we as humans justify this? Death squads, these kids are being HUNTED, their friends heads gets bashed in with cement blocks. What an utterly disgusting world we have created for ourselves. Yet their religion justifies it for them, it doesn't prevent or condemn it. For them being gay/emo (two different things) is worse than MURDER. The blood of the youth will taint your hands, there is no justifying taking another’s life for your religion. We as humans have lost our way.

      zaatheist - 2012-03-13 09:58

      We have Jesus on one side and Mohammed on the other, each one trying to impose their different and ridiculous versions of god on us! It's very annoying!

      Peter-Peter - 2012-03-13 10:13

      "We have Jesus on one side and Mohammed on the other..." Kind of makes you wonder...if these are 'Gods', and are all mighty and powerful and all that rubbish, why cant they fight their OWN fights? why would they let their minions fight for them? are they that lazy, careless and cold? or is it that they dont exist and all this religion rubbish is all in the mind?

      zaatheist - 2012-03-13 10:50

      @Peter-peter Good point. Religion should come with a health warning like cigarettes: ‘religion kills.’

      lovenergy - 2012-03-13 15:13

      @Patrick, like everything else in this world we spend more time fighting about who started what than trying to find solutions. I am not sure judging by your comment if you understand the seriousness of what is happening.

  • Edwhynot - 2012-03-13 09:52

    Kill them! Kill them all!!!!! HOORAH!

  • Bram - 2012-03-13 10:27

    What, no comments of outrage from the so-called crusaders against injustice? Where are Fidel, Graziella, Muhammed Bhyat, et al? Or is it only when certain people oppress? Shame on you!

      zaatheist - 2012-03-13 11:38

      They are still thinking of some more ways to blame it on Amerika.

      Fidel - 2012-03-13 15:21

      My interest is in geo-politics. I don't comment or have an opinion on everything that happens in other people's bedrooms. There are tens of articles per day on News24 and I don't comment on all of them. If you miss me say so! Man up and ask a lady out, nicely.....

      Fidel - 2012-03-13 15:24

      @atheist The death squads operating in Iraq are a result of direct US involvement in destabilising that country,no?

  • Lindani - 2012-03-13 19:23

    i just dont see an end to intoralance in the middle east i hope the UN (those hypocrites) can talk to the theocracies of the middle east so they can come to some sort of agreement that if someone is gay or whatever they can be moved and become citizens of other secular and accepting countries cause for the UN to just sit and do nothing while this is going on is a btrayal of the very values on which the UN is founded on!

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