You might be thinking right about now “why is a global business news outlet interested in gay men in Iraq and Syria?” Well, put simply when I founded entrehub.org I made the decision that if we felt that social justice stories were not being picked up by the mainstream press then someone has to….that someone in this instance is this publication and should come as a reminder to us all that behind the story are many others….
Growing up gay in a developed western country can, for many, be a mountain too high to climb so what if you were a young man living in Iraq who was not only coming to terms with his sexuality but having no access to support and living minute to minute in fear of your life. As far back as 2009 when Human Rights Watch released a damming report on the treatment of homosexuals in Iraq trials were being held without evidence or cause. In fact, if there was even just a suspicion that a man could be gay they could be hauled from their homes, immediately condemned, beaten or even put to death. The report highlighted the case of one man who’s partner of ten years was kidnapped: "It was late one night, and they came to take my partner at his parents' home. Four armed men barged into the house, masked and wearing black. They asked for him by name; they insulted him and took him in front of his parents. ... He was found in the neighbourhood the day after. They had thrown his corpse in the garbage. His genitals were cut off and a piece of his throat was ripped out."
Step forward to today and the situation across Syria and Iraq is vastly different with much of those two countries now in the hands of Islamic State. For the last two years stories have emerged from behind the wire of men suspected of being gay thrown from the tops of buildings to their deaths and even beaten to death in public. In many ways you could reasonably think that the killing of gay men, young and middle aged, is the un-talked about hate crime and yet their options for escape are few.
For the last six months this publication has been in contact with one such young gay man living a life on the run, scared that he will be discovered, in constant fear of his life and scared for his future. Ali (not his real name in order to protect his identity) now lives in the southern city of Najaf which is about 160km south of the capital Baghdad. He is originally from Northern Iraq. Now in his mid-twenties he knew he was gay from his early teens and has hid it from his family ever since. When we first made contact with Ali he spoke of his fear “I am living a lie and I know that but what can I do? If I tell anyone that I am gay I will be killed. I cannot go out and meet people because they are scared of being caught as well and sometimes if you are found out your own family could be your killers.” To make things worse the city of Najaf is also the centre of Shi’a political power as well as home to one of the holiest shrines in that sect, the Imam Ali Shrine. The problem with this is that ISIS is waging a holy war against Shi’a Muslims. Now, not only is Ali in fear of his life from people within his country, sect and family, he is also in constant fear of ISIS gaining more ground and pushing south into Iraq. “There have been bomb blasts here since I was a boy and people are saying there are ISIS spies already here. I am scared”
Ali went on to say “If ISIS invade I have heard stories of how they treat single men. They think everyone has committed a crime until proven otherwise and if you do not have a girlfriend you could be singled out. What do I do? Do I try and have a girlfriend? Will that save me? What am I being saved from if I cannot be who I am?”
The Human Rights Watch report backs up much of Ali’s fears with some telling writers that "At 10 a.m., [Ministry of Interior officers] cuffed my hands behind my back. Then they tied a rope around my legs, and they hung me upside down from a hook in the ceiling, from morning till sunset. I passed out. I was stripped down to my underwear while I hung upside down. They cut me down that night, but they gave me no water or food. Next day, they told me to put my clothes back on and they took me to the investigating officer. He said, 'You like that? We're going to do that to you more and more, until you confess.' Confess to what? I asked. 'To the work you do, to the organization you belong to, and that you are a tanta' [queen]. For days, there were severe beatings, and constant humiliation and insults. ... It was the same form of abuse every day. They beat me all over my body; when they had me hanging upside down, they used me like a punching bag. ... They used electric prods all over my body. Then they raped me. Over three days. The first day, 15 of them raped me; the second day, six; the third day, four. There was a bag on my head every time." Mohammad in Iraq (2009)
"[The killers'] measuring rod to judge people is who they have sex with. It is not by their conscience, it is not by their conduct or their values, it is who they have sex with. The cheapest thing in Iraq is a human being, a human life. It is cheaper than an animal, than a pair of used-up batteries you buy on the street. Especially people like us. ... I can't believe I'm here talking to you because it's all just been repressed, repressed, repressed. For years it's been like that -- if I walk down the street, I would feel everyone pointing at me. I feel as if I'm dying all the time. And now this, in the last month -- I don't understand what we did to deserve this. They want us exterminated. All the violence and all this hatred: the people who are suffering from it don't deserve it." Hamid in Iraq (2009).
Ali sees no way out other than try and board a boat to Australia or find his way to Turkey, cross the border and attempt to enter Europe. In fact in our last communication with Ali he suggested “I’m coming soon to Australia”
The dilemma that many Western Governments will face is that the type of refugees seeking asylum are changing and they will not always be fleeing conflict and war alone. There are those, like Ali, who are genuinely fleeing persecution because of his sexual orientation and there is a growing body of anecdotal evidence that even when these young men (and sometimes women) make it to what they believe to be a safe haven they are then placed into a camp where they remain fearful of revealing their true self for fear of being beaten and rejected. The war raging across the middle east is not just one of religion it is one where a single group of people seeks to beat, kill and exterminate a number of minority groups in a jihad that just makes no sense at all.
In the case of Ali all he cares about is having a future somewhere safe with someone who loves him and in a country where he can reach his full potential. And, as Australians and many others fight for the ability to marry who they want let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands who don’t even have the ability to fight for the right to live.
Matthew Tukaki is the editor of entrehub.org. sources in this story have had their identities protected. some quotes have been referenced back to the Human Rights Watch Report
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