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Iraqi Gay, 'Emo' Youth Targeted For Killings

March 15th 2012

Holding Hands

Roby Hurriya holds up two pictures of his friend, which tell the story of what it now means to be gay in Iraq. One is a portrait of a handsome youth with a stylish haircut. The other 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 on February 17. "In popular neighborhoods gays can be easily recognized because the one who has sex and who sells his body is known to 10 or 12 [people], unlike the one who has sex with him. He can be easily picked up." says Hurriya -- a pseudonym used by the 25-year-old doctor's assistant and gay activist. "They called me at sunset and told me that they laid him down on the pavement and smashed his head with a cement block." Homosexuals have lived in fear in Iraq for years, notably since religious militias claimed control of the streets in the sectarian warfare that followed the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, which toppled Saddam Hussein. But Hurriya 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, members of Shi'ite militias, 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 distinctive hairstyles and black clothes that has spread to Iraq. Hurriya says he believes at least 200 men have been killed in recent years either for being gay or appearing effeminate. 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 string," he says. "We know if anything bad has happened to any of us."
 
'Emo' Dress Targeted
 
The apparent spread of the violence in recent weeks to heterosexual youth who dress in emo style has caused panic among young Iraqis. 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 young people -- male and female -- hungry for self-expression in a conservative, often violent culture. Young Iraqis 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 selling clothing and jewelry with skulls and band logos have quickly taken down their emo displays. Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government may not be helping. The Interior Ministry last month released a statement that labeled the emo culture "Satanism." It said a special police force would stamp it out.
 
'Let Them Kill Me'
 
Hafidh Jamal, 19, who works in a shoe store in the upscale Karrada neighborhood, says 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 of his friends were killed for dressing in the emo style, he says. "Let them kill me. They killed my close friends," he says. "They want to kill me, let them kill me." 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 killings. "We have not hurt anyone. Why are they doing this to us? 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. It is our personal freedom," Noor says. "I do not know why there is all this fuss. We got rid from the sectarianism and now we have this."

From Radio Free Europe and Services.


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