Gay Chechens flee threats, beatings and exorcism
Family pressure has fuelled a sense of persecution felt by gay people in Chechnya, a mainly Muslim region in southern Russia.
Dozens have fled and some have been granted asylum abroad, amid reports of kidnap and torture by Chechen security forces targeting gay or allegedly gay people. Chechen officials deny the reported abuses.
Olga Prosvirova of BBC Russian interviewed two of those who fled in fear. They requested anonymity, so their names have been changed.
Marko, a Chechen in her early 20s, will never forget the day her family found out she was gay.
"They said to me: 'Either we will kill you, or we will lock you up in a psychiatric ward and throw away the key. The only alternative is that you undergo an exorcism.'"
Marco now lives temporarily in one of Russia's largest cities, waiting to complete her documents so that she can leave Russia for good.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov maintains that there are no homosexuals in the republic. But an investigation by the Novaya Gazeta newspaper last year found that members of Chechnya's LGBT community were regularly beaten and tortured. Some, it alleged, had even been killed.
Mr Kadyrov's spokesman Alvi Karimov dismissed the allegations, telling the Interfax news agency: "Even if such people existed in Chechnya, our law enforcement agencies would not need to bother with them, because their own relatives would simply send them to a place from which they would never return."
Marko says she knew she was different even at the age of four.
"As a teenager, I used to think about suicide," she told BBC Russian. "But then I decided: 'No, I won't give you the satisfaction. I'll run away and do the things I have always dreamed of, whatever it takes, whether you like it or not.'"
Before she left Chechnya, Marko agreed to her family's demand that she undergo an exorcism. Her brother took her to their local mosque, where the mullah told her she was possessed by the devil.
"He held my head and read verses from the Koran, and I knew I had to respond as a person possessed would," she says. "I had seen enough YouTube videos to know what to do, and so I twisted about and shouted and said there were seven different demons inside me."
After two hours, she says, everyone rejoiced and said I was cured. "'Hooray!' they all shouted. 'You are no longer a lesbian!'"
They found a young man for her and told her she would marry, but soon after that she managed to escape.
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Since giving this interview, and helped by an LGBT organisation, Marko has left Russia for a new life abroad. She says she now wants to put her past behind her and just live with her girlfriend, whom she met on social media.
"I just want to live, to have children and be happy," she says.
It is hard to find out how many Chechens like Marko have been granted refuge outside Russia, as many immigration services do not register the sexual orientation of asylum seekers.
Last year the German foreign ministry said it had accepted one gay man from Chechnya and was reviewing four more applications. Lithuania has taken in two and France one.
Belgium has given five gay Chechen men humanitarian visas so that they can fly to Belgium from Moscow, Belgian media reported on Friday.
And more than two dozen gay and bisexual men and women from Chechnya have been granted asylum in Canada.
This week Igor Kochetkov, head of the Russian LGBT Network, told Novaya Gazeta that over the past year his charity had assisted 114 people from Chechnya who said they had been persecuted because of their sexual orientation.
Ruslan is torn between his feelings for his boyfriend and love of his own family. He escaped Chechnya after being held captive for a month.
"I've liked boys since I was a kid," says Ruslan, now in his early 30s. "But when my relatives found out I was gay, they took away my passport, my documents and my mobile phone and they locked me in my room for over a month."
One day he managed to get out and borrowed a neighbour's phone. Later that night his boyfriend came to whisk him away to a different city.
'Living a lie'
Ruslan spoke of a "big purge of gays in Chechnya".
He said the Kadyrov militia "found one and beat him until he gave them the names of others.
"Some were caught and thrown into cellars and beaten violently. Some were never found: their relatives didn't even bother looking for them, because they said they'd brought shame on them."
Ruslan's new life is more difficult than he imagined it would be. He spends most of his time hiding indoors; if he goes out, he covers his head with a hood.
To earn money recently, he handed out campaign leaflets before last month's presidential election, but once he came across a police patrol and ran straight back to his flat.
Unlike Marko, Ruslan has not decided whether he should flee Russia. "I don't know what's happening at home (in Chechnya)," he says. "My brother is probably looking for me: he has most likely gone to the police."
When he talks about his family and his home, he struggles to hold back the tears. He misses his mother and young niece, he says, who is getting married soon.
"All my life I have observed our customs, according to the Koran," he says. "But I simply couldn't carry on living a lie. The only thing I wish for is that my niece, whom I love dearly, doesn't think badly of me and that her husband does not say to her: 'Your uncle is gay: your family is unclean.' I pray to Allah to protect her from this."