Pakistan's sex trade draws Afghan refugees


RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- Laila, a 40-year-old Afghani refugee, said her oldest son Haroon "knows everything" about her work as a prostitute.

Fourteen-year-old Haroon knows that his mother goes to men's houses or hotels to have sex for money as often as seven times a week. Sometimes, she's gone all night, earning 10,000 rupees, about $160, for a stay with one man. Other times, she goes out for only a short while to make a quick 2,000 rupees, or roughly $32, for what Laila calls "one shot."


Haroon also knows that when he leaves their tiny two-room apartment during the day that his mother will sometimes bring men into the airless bedroom darkened with tattered curtains where at night he sleeps with her and his 6-year-old brother, Sohraab, who's still too young to understand.

"He knows it's part of the life," said Laila has been working for about nine years as a prostitute in Rawalpindi, a jumble of colorless concrete buildings dotted with flyblown squatter just outside Islamabad.


It's Haroon, Laila said, who will help her quit prostitution by earning enough money to pay for the apartment's monthly rent and buy food for her and Sohraab.

"He'll be a good business man," Laila says of Haroon, the shadow of his first mustache beneath floppy bangs parted down the middle the day a reporter came to interview his mother.

But it may take a while. Currently, Haroon makes about 100 rupees a day ($1.60) scavenging plastic bags to resell on Rawalpindi's streets, where cars, buses, donkey carts and the occasional stray cow or goat tangle noisily in traffic that seems to twist and lurch in the dusty heat without flowing.

It's quiet inside Laila's dingy apartment. She sits cradling Sohraab, whose father she cannot name, on threadbare carpets next to two other Afghani prostitutes and a pimp, who the women call their "dealer."

Widowed late in Afghanistan's war with the Soviets, Laila said she began slowly selling her household belongings to make money after her husband was gone. She sold everything, she said. When nothing was left she took what little money she had and paid a smuggler to get her across the border to Peshawar, where she stayed briefly before finding a job as a housekeeper in Islamabad for a wealthy Saudi Arabian family.


That lasted for about a year and a half, Laila said, but the family moved away and left her out of work. That's when one of the other maids in the house suggested she try being a call girl.

"I decided to do this because here in Pakistan most of the people like to have sex," Laila said, adding that Pakistani men were especially attracted to her because of her light coloring.

None of Moriah's five children know that she slips out of the house about once every two weeks to have sex for extra money. Neither does her husband.

"He has no idea," says Moriah, also a plump 40-year-old with dark stringy hair to match her sagging expression.

Moriah said she left Mazar-i-Sharif with her family about four years ago, after Taliban forces murdered her father-in-law. Her husband manages to eke out a living selling vegetables from a cart in Rawalpindi. But the income is rarely enough. So about two and a half years ago Moriah went to work as a call girl in secret to make ends meet. She says she gets most of her customers from Laila, who sends clients to Moriah and other part-time prostitutes when they start asking for new women after being with her.


"There no problems yet," Moriah says, describing how she manages to hide her part-time work from her husband.

"He gets up early in the morning," she said, occasionally heaving phlemy coughs that sound like a clatter of softened bones deep in her chest. "I am very clever."

If Moriah's husband were to find out, she said, "He will kill me."

A 1979 law by Pakistan's third military ruler Gen. Zia ul Haq declared extra-marital sex illegal in Pakistan, with punishments ranging from a jail time to stoning to death. Unlike Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Pakistan does not conduct public stonings, despite the law. Prostitutes caught and convicted usually face jail terms of up to three years.

But male family members in this conservative Muslim society are likely to doll out swifter and harsher punishments of beatings and even death as a matter of family honor if faced with an unfaithful wife or promiscuous female relative.

Moriah's neighbor Farzana, 30, probably doesn't have to worry about her husband killing her if he finds out that she is doing the same thing as Moriah. He doesn't have legs.

Farzana said her husband was running in Afghanistan's capital Kabul the last time he was whole -- running to get away from a Taliban shelling of the city. He didn't escape the explosions, but he managed to get Farzana and their five children to Pakistan afterward despite his injuries. He even found a job washing cars in Rawalpindi, no small accomplishment for a handicapped illegal.


But Farzana says the pain of his condition only allows him to work about twice a week, leaving her to do what she can to feed, clothe and house them all.

Like Laila and Moriah, Farzana hopes to quit being a call girl once her children begin earning enough money to support the family. When her oldest boy turns 20 and finishes training to be tailor, Farzana says she might be able to stop being a prostitute.

"In seven or eight years, we will be able to do the right thing, to stop this," says Farzana, who remembers a little English from her school days in Kabul.

Part of Pakistan's estimated 3 million Afghani refugees, Laila and Moriah, Farzana tried for years to find a way to make living before resorting to prostitution. But the latest wave of refugees fleeing the current fighting in Afghanistan face grimmer circumstances that force many women to consider selling themselves sooner.

In Peshawar, a town on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the north, some refugee women are turning to prostitution within weeks of arriving at the refugee hub. In Quetta, another border city packed with Afghani refugees in the south, local madams say many new Afghani women have come to them looking for work as call girls in recent weeks as well.


And still more refugees are arriving as fighting intensifies between the U.S.-backed rebel forces of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, which was pushed out of Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif this week but appear to remain in control of their southern stronghold of Kandahar, across the border from Quetta.

U.N. officials say the area, the biggest gathering point for refugees, is awash with some 45,000 Afghanis, with reports of several thousand more on the move from Kandahar and other areas in recent days.

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