Every day, Travis Schouten lives with the image of the rape of an Afghan boy at a Canadian Forces base.
Witnessing two men, one armed with a knife, sodomize the child during an incident in late 2006 helped drive the 26-year-old to the brink of mental collapse.
But the former corporal said the assault is just the tip of an iceberg and underneath lies the systemic sexual abuse of boys at the hands of Afghanistan’s police and army. It’s something he said the Canadian Forces has turned a blind eye to.
“It’s disgusting,” said Schouten, now retired after eight years in the military. “We’re telling people that we’re trying to build a nation there and we let this happen?”
“We allow rampant abuse of young boys at the hands of what is supposed to be their finest police officers and army officers, then what does that say?”
Schouten’s allegations that Afghans were sexually abusing children at a Canadian base near Kandahar made headlines in 2008 but earlier this year, military investigators dismissed the claims as unfounded.
He is, however, not alone in voicing his concerns. Defence Department records show military police were upset about such incidents but were told not to interfere. Army officers also met in 2007 to discuss the issue of Afghan security personnel “having anal sex with young boys” but their main concern was the media would somehow find out.
Others in the military note they were told such practices were an age-old part of Afghan culture. One soldier who e-mailed Canwest News Service stated he served at the same base at another time and troops had orders to stop any rapes. But he also noted they were told the practise of “Man Love Thursdays,” as it was called, involved consenting Afghans and no one was raped by older men. The children involved were given small gifts or money in return for sex, soldiers said.
Schouten, however, questions whether a five- or six-year old child, or even an 11-year-old, can consent. “The Canadian Forces wants people to think it’s a cultural thing, that everyone is doing it, because it takes the onus of responsibility off them to stop it,” he said.
The United Nations has also questioned arguments that sex with children is a cultural issue. In July 2008, a UN special representative spoke out against the Afghan practise. “What I found was nobody talks about it; everyone says, ‘Well, you know, it’s been there for 1,000 years, so why do we want to raise this now?’ ” said Radhika Coomaraswamy. “But somebody has to raise it and it has to be dealt with.”
And not all Afghans are so accepting of what some claim is tradition. Afghan villagers this summer complained to British troops in Helmand province that Afghan police were abducting children to be used for sex.
Last year also saw an extremely rare event; three Afghan police officers who gang-raped a 12-year-old boy and his father were sent to prison.
Although reports in a Toronto newspaper noted that Schouten saw the aftermath of the attack on a young boy, he said that is not accurate. He actually entered the headquarters and witnessed two Afghan security personnel sodomizing the child. “I walked in and they were raping a kid,” he recalled. “The kid was bleeding. They guy with the camo fatigues had a knife in his hand.”
He left the headquarters shaken. The Canadian unit already had been dealing with other problems with the Afghans and his immediate options were limited. “I wasn’t going to start doing something at the scene,” he said. “I’m in the middle of the ANP headquarters. What do I do? Start shooting Afghan police? I’d get myself shot.”
Afterward, he was approached by an Afghan interpreter who worked with troops. The man had with him a couple of five-year-old boys who had also been allowed on the Canadian base. “He brought up the fact he likes to rape little boys,” Schouten said. “He’s telling me how he likes to use a knife on them.”
Schouten said after the incident, his life fell apart. He began drinking heavily. After returning from Afghanistan, he was involved in a car accident which injured one of his passengers. He went absent without leave when he was supposed to be at a psychiatrist’s appointment.
The army’s reaction was to try to dishonourably discharge him but Schouten successfully fought that. In August, he was honourably discharged on medical grounds.
Schouten wasn’t surprised the military investigation concluded his allegations were unfounded and his chain of command had not been informed of any such incidents.
Back in Canada, he told a lieutenant colonel and Defence Department officials of the incident, who in turn, informed others in the army’s leadership. However, since none of those people was in Schouten’s direct chain of command, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service could conclude nothing was reported, he explained.
Other soldiers also were reluctant to come forward. “Guys have mortgages, they have kids,” said Schouten. “If they go and get involved in this their careers will be stopped. Look what the army did to me.”
Schouten isn’t expecting anything different from an army board of inquiry launched last year. Although soldiers know Afghan security forces are having sex with kids, the issue is too explosive to deal with, he added.
Schouten said the rape and its aftermath shook his faith in the military. “In my mind, when I signed up, it was a brotherhood to me,” he explained. “I thought I was there for an established set of values and I loved that. I was wrong.”
Schouten is now rebuilding his life and is going to university. “I’m putting myself back together,” he said.
“But at the same time, I do feel people should be held accountable and people should know this is what is going on over there.”