In the bad old days of slavery in the United States, there was the “Underground Railroad” – a clandestine network of secret routes and safe houses – which spirited thousands of southern slaves to freedom in the north.
Today, 200 years later in Iraq, a modern version of the underground railroad is saving the lives of gay people who are fleeing Islamist death squads.
It is providing safe houses in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, and is smuggling lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people to neighbouring countries, where it helps them apply for United Nations humanitarian protection. This secret network, coordinated by Iraqi LGBT exiles in London, is saving dozens of lives.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, homophobia and the terrorisation of LGBT people has got much worse. The western invasion of Iraq in 2003 ended the tyrannical Baathist dictatorship. But it also destroyed a secular state, created chaos and lawlessness and allowed the flourishing of religious fundamentalism. The result has been an Islamist-inspired homophobic terror campaign against LGBT Iraqis.
This campaign of terror is sanctioned, some say orchestrated, by Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In 2005, he issued a fatwa urging the killing of LGBT people in the “worst, most severe way” possible.
This is the same al-Sistani who was praised by President Bush as a “leading moderate.” The British government concurred. We hosted him for medical treatment. He was anti-Saddam, so the West backed him, even after he issued his murderous religious edicts.
Although the general security situation has improved in Iraq, for LGBT people it has deteriorated sharply. Systematic assassinations of queers are being orchestrated by police and security agents in the Ministry of the Interior, many of whom are former members of the Iranian-backed Badr Corps militia.
Queers are being shot dead in their homes, streets and workplaces. Even suspected gay children are being murdered.
The killers claim to be doing these assassinations at the behest of the “democratic” Iraqi government, in order to eradicate what they see as immoral, unIslamic behaviour.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
This programme of targeted murders has one aim, according to the death squads: the total eradication of all queers from Iraq. It is, in effect, a form of sexual cleansing. The killers boast that most “sodomites” have already been eliminated.
The Ministry of the Interior is, of course, a key ministry in the UK and US-backed, government of Iraq. Some democracy! In fact, there is no democracy or human rights at all for Iraqi queers. If the government in Baghdad is not actively encouraging the mass killing of LGBT people, it is definitely allowing rogue police and Islamists to do so.
To protect against this terror and save lives, Iraqi LGBT has created its underground queer railroad, complete with safe houses and escape routes.
“Since establishing the safe houses project in 2006 we have provided refuge for dozens of gay people who were being hunted by death squads,” reports Ali Hili, coordinator of Iraqi LGBT.
“We have also assisted people to escape from Iraq to neighbouring countries, where we have established resettlement projects. Our efforts have got gay refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and we’ve already moved some of them a third safer country, in Europe or North America. These lucky ones are now beginning to rebuild their lives,” said Mr Hili.
K is a 33 year old architect who escaped to Amman in Jordan. He now helps run the Iraqi LGBT support group there; aiding other LGBT refugees from Iraq. So far, seven out of 23 Iraqi LGBT refugees who have been smuggled to Jordan have had their applications for asylum approved by the UNHCR and been able to secure asylum in countries like the United States, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany.
This heroic work is not without its risks and sacrifices. Many of the underground activists have been assassinated, in a series of grisly homophobic and transphobic murders:
Two lesbians who ran the safe house in the city of Najaf were butchered, together with a young boy they had rescued from the sex industry. Last summer, the coordinator of a Baghdad safe house, Bashar, was gunned to death in his local barber’s shop by an Islamist hit squad. Previously, five gay activists who organised another Baghdad safe house were massacred.
The lack of funds is a perpetual problem. Three of the five safe houses in Baghdad had to close last year because of a lack of donations to keep them running. Two of the houses have since been reopened but it is a constant struggle to fund them. Money is needed to pay rent, electricity and food bills for the 10-12 LGBT refugees who are crammed into each house.
Many more LGBT Iraqis need a place to hide. Don’t let them be killed for want of a safe refuge. Help Iraqi LGBT continue its brave, inspiring, life-saving work.
For more information or to assist with a donation go to iraqilgbtuk.blogspot.com. Originally published in The Guardian – Comment is Free – London – 25 February 2009.