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Saturday, March 8, 2014
- “I consider myself lucky after finding my son,” says Muhammad Jabeen, a juice vendor in Bannu, one of the 25 districts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in northern Pakistan. The Taliban had taken his son, Mateen Shah, away from a madrassa to join their ranks.
Jabeen says his son was only 16 when he was abducted in October 2011. The boy was taken to a half-destroyed building in Waziristan where he was given lessons in jihad. “His captors would have brainwashed him to become a voluntary suicide bomber had he not escaped after four months.”
The fundamental reason Mateen Shah was abducted was that he lived on the poor side of inequality that cuts through the area.
“Bannu houses more than 100 religious schools where children from poor families are admitted because their parents cannot afford the high cost of education in modern schools,” Muhammad Jamal, a political science teacher at the Postgraduate College Bannu, tells IPS. At madrassas children are given free food and clothes.
Bannu has become a breeding ground for terrorism because the Taliban have recruited hundreds of boys for their fighting squads over the past 10 years, Jamal says.
Bannu is close to North Waziristan Agency, a Taliban hotbed. The Taliban routinely pick up boys from poor families in Bannu and train them to use guns, improvised explosive devices and to become suicide bombers, says Jamal.
Two boys who went missing along with Mateen Shah have still not been traced.
Police officer Khalid Khan tells IPS that the Taliban have kidnapped more than 500 children in the past five years. “About 40 have escaped but the whereabouts of others are not known.”
Orphans are known locally to be the most vulnerable to recruitment because they are easily “available”. The Taliban say they have no children in their ranks, but Khan says they have actively been recruiting orphaned and homeless young boys to train them in terrorism.
“Affluent people send their children to modern schools to get formal education. Terrorists hunt for young starving children to be trained to plant bombs, lay roadside traps or [be used] in fighting and for carrying out suicide attacks,” Khan said.
Fazl Hanan, a resident of Lakki Marwat district, says his nephew fell into Taliban hands after his poverty-ridden father employed him at a roadside restaurant. “He disappeared from the place. It was said that he used to meet with a few local Taliban members frequently. He may have opted to join them.”
Districts such as Lakki Marwat, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan and Tank are thick with insurgents. They took refuge in the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas after being evicted by U.S.-led forces from Kabul towards the end of 2001.
“These districts are all grounds for recruiting local children, especially those in madrassas or who have part-time odd jobs,” Khan said.
“The Taliban took away my son from an automobile workshop in March 2011 by promising him a lucrative job,” Shaukat Ali, a vegetable vendor from Charsadda district, told IPS. “Three months later, he (the son) called to say he was in Waziristan.”
Jawad Ali, who was 18 then, was his only son. The boy had been supplementing the father’s income to feed his 12-member family.
“We were hoping that Jawad would return. But I was informed by a Taliban group that he blew himself up in Afghanistan. The Taliban congratulated me to say that Jawad had gone to paradise.” Shaukat Ali was told his son had died in a suicide attack on U.S. soldiers.
Boys recruited by the Taliban do manage sometimes to escape. On Jun. 1, 2009 about 20 teenage boys escaped from Taliban custody. “The Taliban kidnapped us from religious schools in Dera Ismail Khan and kept us in a massive mud-built compound in Waziristan where we were lectured by a long-bearded man,” Imran Ali, 15, one of the kidnapped boys who escaped, told IPS.
But he said some boys were happy that they were getting food without doing any work.
“I was also happy, but one of the boys explained to us that we would ultimately die in suicide bombing or some other terror act. We waited for an opportune time and escaped.”
Many of the boys picked up are never heard from again. Abdur Rehman, 15, was taken away in 2006 from the Swat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“Like 200 other boys who went missing in Swat, he is still untraced,” Muhammad Rehman, his father, a construction labourer, told IPS. “Since his disappearance, there is no clue. I don’t have resources to travel to Waziristan and locate him.”
Police officer Khan says that overall about 400 children recruited by the Taliban have been traced and arrested. “We have shifted them to internment centres where they are being de-radicalised. They are being given skills in tailoring, embroidery, carpentry, etc so they could start their business.”
Gul Muhammad, 19, is one of them. He was 14 when he went missing from Swat. In 2010, he was arrested from a Taliban training camp in Swat and sent to jail.
“I was shifted here from jail four months ago. I am learning tailoring and will start my business,” Muhammad, who was given a tailoring certificate in July at the interment centre, told IPS. “Now I am free from Taliban and will help my poor parents.”
But there are many poor where he came from. And that is where the Taliban look, and find.