The Guardian, August 3, 2013
From classrooms to suicide bombs: children’s lives in Afghanistan
Child casualties in Afghanistan are rising, among them children recruited as suicide bombers by the Taliban – often with their parents' blessing. But education is the way ahead
By Andrew O'Hagan
At the juvenile detention centre in Kandahar there are two sets of children. The first are riotous and loud, arrested for theft and other crimes of that sort. When you give them a piece of paper and ask them to write down the reason they are in prison, they simply scratch lines into the paper or scrunch it up. They can't write. The second group are silent. But when they take the sheet of paper, they begin to write the most beautiful script, their sentences full of fire and argument. These are the children who were recruited to be suicide bombers – and their mothers tell them they will succeed next time.
The prison isn't big on vocational training but they had some sewing machines before the man who operated them disappeared. Some of the boys are as young as 10. There is no education and too little water. The Afghan government, for reasons nobody understands, aims to move the children to a new site near Sarposa prison, a Taliban-rich area where adult inmates once sewed up their mouths in protest at what they believed was their unlawful detention. Evidence suggests that detained children are physically abused in these prisons. A boy who steals a pomegranate may steal another one and end up next to a kid who knows the quick way to another world.
One boy, Beltoon, came from the province of Paktia. The families in his village competed over whose sons would be sent to the madrasa. "You do not love your son, you do not teach him in the ways of Islam," the elders would say to parents who kept their sons at home. A counsellor I spoke to told me many elders believe the world has come to destroy Islam and they must fight back. Beltoon is 15: he was herding goats before his father decided he should go to the regional madrasa, where he spent nine months. The dean then asked for volunteers. Which of them wished to have "advanced" education in Islam in Pakistan? Beltoon's father and his uncles told him this meant a better education.
"Would he understand," I asked, "that going over the border would mean military training?"
Injured Afghan boy. (Photo: http://stevemccurry.wordpress.com/tag/children)
"The dean asks the child and his family if he wishes to be sacrificed in the way of Islam," the counsellor replied. "This doesn't mean giving him up to suicide bombing, but some will be. It can escalate from one madrasa to another and eventually the child might find himself in a place where the children are training to be suicide bombers."
At the compound Beltoon met older children who began to persuade him of the "cause". It's a familiar process. There was a great deal of physical exercise, hard work carrying packs in the sun. Beltoon had no direct contact with his family; once or twice the dean of his madrasa would pass on some news. Beltoon wasn't surprised to hear nothing: his family seemed to him to live without questions and without news. They didn't have knowledge such as he was gleaning. He had begun to trust the leaders around him. He wanted to please them, the counsellor said.
Beltoon was told that the index finger of his right hand was the Shahadat, the finger of "witness", the digit of Allah. He was told he must use this finger on the suicide vest to be sure of his place in paradise. He must be sure to flick the switch firmly with this finger. Beltoon was convinced he had found the best way to raise himself to the pinnacle of respect, and into a life much greater than this one.
Beltoon was close to a boy called Sahim, also 15. After six months in the training centre, they were driven to a local house for further "initiation". They got to know the location where they would do their holy work. Sahim appeared to have no end of enthusiasm for the planned attack. Early in 2012 the boys were dropped off on a street near the American base. They were walking side by side when an Afghan soldier near the entrance to the base saw them. They seemed unsure what to do – Sahim pushed Beltoon and they argued for a moment – and the soldier ordered them to stop and summoned other military. The boys' suicide vests were removed on the spot and that night they were taken to the detention centre in Kandahar. Beltoon hasn't seen his mother again, but a message was sent to him encouraging him not to give up hope. "Maybe next time," she said.
In the thick of Kabul the temperature soared into the 40s. It was June, and I had come in the wake of a Unicef report stating that the number of children killed or injured in Afghanistan had gone up by nearly 30% in the first half of this year compared to the first half of last year. From the beginning of the year until the end of April there were 414 child casualties, in the same period in 2012 there were 327 child casualties recorded. These are inflicted by every side in the conflict. On 3 June, a suicide attack beside a school in Paktia killed 10 children and injured 15. Three days later, a US air attack in Kunar province killed three children and injured seven. Suicide bombers are casualties, too.
There's only one organisation in Afghanistan that is trying to rehabilitate children like Beltoon and Sahim. It's a local Afghanistan NGO and I've been asked not to name it because of the extreme sensitivity of its work. "Some of the children have deep depression after they end up in the correction centre," Dr Karimi, the executive director, told me. "Many of them also need counselling because they have been sexually abused by the older boys. And of course they cannot speak about it in front of the other children because of the stigma."
"And what about their families?"
"Part of the problem," he says. "The family sometimes blames the child for failing. And we have found we have to try putting the family into therapy together. Sometimes the children won't speak to us. We have to use Islamic sources close to them in the prisons to begin the dialogue necessary to help them."
It is never easy to get the political children out of their mindset. "The brainwashing has been so effective," Mr Wahidi, a colleague of Dr Karimi, said. "In one case, a child smuggled in information about how to escape from the prison. They killed a police officer in the attempt. The boy saw it as a second opportunity for glory after his suicide bombing failed."
"So how do you do it?" I asked.
"Cognitive therapy," Dr Karimi replied. "We find ways to protect them and speak to them away from their parents. We use the Islamic tools they understand. It is a big challenge to change the behaviour of these children because, of course, we are not able to change their whole culture." It becomes obvious that these children were a kind of elite, enjoying better food and shelter in the training camps than in their villages.
"Most of them are in search of a life," Wahidi added. "An eternal life, if possible." These kids might disappear at 12 and come back at 15 fully militarised and conscious of their own bodies as weapons.
I went with Dr Karimi to their counselling centre. It was a low building with two classrooms on either side of a hot porch. A dozen boys were sitting cross-legged on a large red Afghan rug. The youngest was 10. "I feel better since coming here," said Samoon, a 13-year-old who had had pressure put on him by his father and his uncle. He had very green eyes and couldn't stop laughing. "I would like my own life now and I would like to be a civil engineer." The boy who sat next to him was called Ibrahim and he wanted to be a pilot. "I would like to help my country," he added. People who work with children like Samoon tell me war has undermined any sense of where they fit into the world.
Peter Crowley, the Unicef representative in Afghanistan, feels this is a crucial moment for Afghanistan, and is sure that the current situation, with rising violence and troop withdrawal imminent, constitutes a potential "perfect storm" that could obliterate the hopes of the children they have spent years trying to help. "Ninety-five per cent of funding in Afghanistan comes from abroad," Crowley said. "Some of that is military and some is humanitarian. The withdrawal of these funds will lead to an immediate crisis."
Last year, 1,304 children were killed in Afghanistan. IEDs (or improvised explosive devices) were the main cause of death. Suicide attacks killed 42 children and injured 68. Hundreds of children were caught in mortar attacks or by shotgun fire. And 46 were targeted by armed opposition groups for being pro-government.
It is difficult to know how many children are held in detention centres because there is often no case documentation. In July 2012 it emerged that 90 children were being held in Parwan without any representation. According to a UN document that came my way, they "continued to receive reports of ill-treatment and torture of children in national detention facilities". Armed groups have been known to use schools as military bases, and there is often a concerted effort by "community elements" opposed to girls' education. "On 12 August 2012," one source reports, "the Taliban abducted and beheaded a 16-year-old boy whom they accused of spying for the pro-government forces in Kandahar province, and on 29 August 2012 they abducted and beheaded a 12-year-old boy because his brother was a policeman". That it's a bad time to be a child in Afghanistan is obvious. And now the spotlight threatens to move elsewhere. "It mustn't move," Crowley warned. "Afghanistan needs the world's attention like never before."
The next morning I went to a camp where refugees uprooted by the conflict were living. IDPs (internally displaced persons) have been flooding into Kabul from the south for years, and the children in those groups are among the most vulnerable in the country. The camp I visited was in Gul-e-Surkh. In a house made of mud and smelling of raw sewage, six girls sat in a close circle on the floor. They couldn't speak – it was just too difficult for them – and I was soon left with their social workers, a busy woman called Miss Fawzia, and Mr Jobair, a man with one leg. Mr Jobair told me the girls were being given a lesson that day on "the purpose of life".
"These girls are neglected," Miss Fawzia said. "There is much discrimination between the boys and the girls. We are trying to protect their human rights". The girls are forced into marriage and no one will stop these men from beating them. "There is little water here," continued Miss Fawzia. "There is only one water pump and one toilet. So, when a girl starts her period she immediately gives up on school, because of the worry, because of the embarrassment."
You can scarcely count the losses suffered in Afghanistan or guess at the new losses being planned by some. Yet since the interim government was created in 2002, children have gained access to thousands of schools and today there are 8.3 million pupils, 40% of them girls. (That's a 650% increase in 10 years.) At the top of the stairs at Sherino high school there is a large portrait of an old girl who became a poet. The school has 121 teachers, all female. We looked in many of the classrooms; in one of them the girls were learning about magnets. A girl told me there was no "poisoning" at the school. Later I stopped to ask her what she meant.
"Some people in the community do not want girls to be educated," she said, "and in some schools they poisoned the drinking water and girls died."
It seems such incidents have been prevalent for some time, especially in the north, where hundreds of schoolgirls had been subject to attacks involving contaminated water and poison gas. At Sherino high school the students believe everything can change. Shabnam, who is 17, was described by one of her teachers as the brightest girl in the whole school. She told me she gets up at dawn and comes in as early as possible every day. One of the reasons is the wonderful facilities they have – the classrooms, the computers, and most of all the sanitation. Shabnam's father is a car dealer and she recently won a competition to write the best business plan. It was about how to buy oil in her home town of Mazar and sell it at a profit.
This is an edited extract from a piece which appears in the latest issue of the London Review of Books. Names have been changed to protect identities.
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