PUL-E KHUMRI, Afghanistan, Nov 19 (Reuters) They are known as ''bacha bereesh'', boys without beards, teenage boys who dress up as girls and dance for male patrons at parties in northern Afghanistan.
It's an age old practice that has led to some of the boy dancers being turned into sex slaves by wealthy and powerful patrons, often former warlords, who dress the boys up as girls, shower them with gifts and keep them as ''mistresses''.
Afghan police are battling to crackdown on the practice which has angered Islamic clerics who say those involved should be stoned for sodomy, forbidden under Islamic law.
In a society where the sexes are strictly segregated, it is common for men to dance for other men at weddings in Afghanistan.
But in northern Afghanistan, former warlords and mujahideen commanders have taken that a step further with competitions for their dancing boys.
''Every boy tries to be the first. They are dressed in women's clothes, have bells on their feet and have artificial breasts,'' said Mohammad Yawar, a former mujahideen fighter against the Taliban and resident of the northern town of Pul-e Khumri.
The practice, called ''bacha bazi'' -- literally ''boy play'' -- has a long history in northern Afghanistan, but sometimes it does not stop with just dancing.
''I very much enjoy hugging a boy. His smell and fragrance kills me,'' said Yawar.
The 38-year-old businessman said he recruited a 15-year-old boy three years ago to help him with his work.
''I have had him for at least three years, since he was only 15. He was looking for a job and I gave him somewhere to stay,'' said Yawar, showing the boy's picture.
''I don't have a wife. He is like my wife. I dress him in women's clothes and have him sleep beside me. I enjoy him and he is my everything,'' he said, kissing the photograph.
MARK OF PRESTIGE Having the best-looking boy and the best dancer is a mark of prestige.
''Everyone tries to have the best, most handsome and good-looking boy,'' said a former mujahideen commander, who declined to be named.
''Sometimes we gather and make our boys dance and whoever wins, his boy will be the best boy.'' Former mujahideen commanders hold such parties in and around Pul-e Khumri about once a week.
''Having a boy has become a custom for us. Whoever wants to show off, should have a boy,'' said Enayatullah, a 42-year-old landowner in Baghlan province.
''I was married to a woman 20 years ago, she left me because of my boy,'' he said. ''I was playing with my boy every night and was away from home, eventually my wife decided to leave me. I am happy with my decision, because I am used to sleeping and entertaining with my young boy.'' The men say they lavish money and gifts on their boys.
''I was only 14-years-old when a former Uzbek commander forced me to have sex with him,'' said Shir Mohammad in Sar-e Pol province. ''Later, I quit my family and became his secretary. I have been with him for 10 years, I am now grown up, but he still loves me and I sleep with him.'' Ahmad Jawad, aged 17, has been with a wealthy landowner for the past two years.
''I am used to it. I love my lord. I love to dance and act like a woman and play with my owner,'' he said.
Asked what he would do when he got older, he said: ''Once I grow up, I will be an owner and I will have my own boys.'' But Shir Mohammad, at 24, was already getting too old to be a dancing boy. ''I am grown up now and do not have the beauty of former years. So, I proposed to marry my lord's daughter and he has agreed to it.'' POVERTY Many local residents have called for a crackdown, but are sceptical it will work as many of the men are powerful and well-armed former commanders.
Jahan Shah, who lives in Pul-e Khumri, said government and security officials should take tough action against unIslamic and immoral acts.
''If they don't stop this, it will become a custom and hundreds of other boys will be involved in it,'' he said.
Police and security officials in northern Afghanistan say they have been doing their best to arrest the men involved.
''It is sad to state that this practice that includes making boys dance, sexual abuse and sometimes even selling boys, has been going on for years,'' said General Asadollah Amarkhil, the security chief of Kunduz province.
''We have taken steps to stop it to the extent that we are able,'' he said.
Amarkhil said poverty, widespread in Afghanistan after nearly three decades of war, forced teenage boys into compliance.
''We have taken very strict measures to save the lives of the boys and punish the men,'' he said. ''We are monitoring to find out where these men and boys gather, then go there and arrest them.'' Those found guilty of abuse would be jailed for at least 15 years, said Baghlan chief prosecutor Hafizullah Khaliqyar.
''We have 25 cases of such immoral acts. They are being processed and we are trying our utmost to tackle the problem,'' he said.
Islamic scholars recommended harsher punishment.
''Those who do this are the devil,'' said Mawlawi Mohammad Sadiq Sadiqyar, a scholar and prayer leader in the main northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. ''Under Islamic law, those who practice this should be stoned to death.'' But some of the men say they are not interested in women.
''We know it is immoral and unIslamic, but how can we quit? We do not like women, we just want boys,'' said Chaman Gul, aged 35 of Takhar province.
Reuters SKB VP0910