BAGHDAD (Reuters) – 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.
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.”
‘Let them kill me. They killed my friends’
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 jewelry with skulls and band logos have quickly taken down their emo displays.
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 labeled 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 neighborhood, 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.”
‘Please excuse us if we kill your brother’
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.
“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 neighboring 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?”