Sabawoon: A new dawn for children in the Swat Valley

A new school run by the Pakistani Army provides an alternative path for students

By Iqbal Khattak

2009-12-22

MALAKAND, Pakistan - “Teacher, you forgot to mention the sixth but important pillar of Islam”, a boy reminded religious scholar and psychiatrist Dr. Farooq Khan.

Farooq is rehabilitating some 85 “militant-kids” at an army-run school in Malakand where the military conducted an operation last summer to flush out the Taliban.

It is “jihad (holy war)”, the boy, about 12, replied when the teacher asked him what this pillar is.

“No son, there are only five pillars of Islam and jihad is obligatory when the state declares it, and not groups or individuals”, Farooq said, trying to teach “true Islam”.

Central Asia Online was given rare access to the heavily-guarded Sabawoon – meaning “new dawn” in Pashtu – a school at Rangmala. Interviews with the “Taliban kids” were not allowed for security and educational reasons. The students are 13 to 18 years old and few have finished secondary school.

The UNICEF-funded school opened last September to provide free religious education and psychiatric counselling to 85 students from Swat, the district where militant leader Mullah Fazlullah significantly influenced the local population.

The 14-month project is the first of its kind in Pakistan, where Islamic militancy has spread to every corner of the country.

Lt. Col. Aamir Najam, head of the school, told Central Asia Online the kids were pointed out by local residents or handed over by their parents to free them of the Taliban’s hard-line views.

Militants seek children 12 to 16, believing them to be effective for suicide bombings and other attacks.

For example, Khair Hussain, 16, was arrested last month in Mingora, a suburb in the Swat district. Hussain told police the Taliban forced him to carry out a suicide attack.

“I was not mentally prepared to do it but the Taliban were forcing me all the time to blow myself up amid crowds or close to soldiers or military installations”, said

Hussain, who quit public school after seventh class and entered a madrassa. That’s where he mingled with the Taliban for the first time, he told police.

At Sabawoon, school management separates children into two groups: low- and high-risk. High security measures are in place out of fear students could run away or be taken by the Taliban.

Among the “high-risk” children are five who were trained for suicide bombings. Psychiatrists at the school believe it will take years to undo that training.

“These kids were suspicious of everything”, Farooq said. “They found the environment very hostile. They thought they were in prison”.

Farooq said the Taliban told the kids that “Pakistan is a liberal and infidel country”, and that there was every justification to fight the infidels as it “said in Shariah”.

Aamir said Taliban strategists also use the children for spying and logistical support.

“It was difficult to suspect a kid of this early age to be spying on you. But they were used as informants, giving information on (the) movement or position of army or paramilitary troops to the Taliban commanders in their respective areas”, he said. Hum Pakistani Foundation, a Lahore-based NGO partnering with the army and UNICEF on the project, believes many other children are “at risk” of being used by the Taliban.

“There is a whole section of youth in Swat that is vulnerable”, a psychiatrist who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal told Central Asia Online.

The psychiatrist said more such facilities are needed for the thousands of kids vulnerable to Taliban influence.

While visiting low-risk kids during their religious education class, signs of early recovery emerge.

“Does Islam allow committing suicide”? Farooq asked. A group “no” was the answer.

“Who can declare jihad: the state or groups or individuals”? Farooq asks.

“It is the state and not groups or individuals to declare jihad”, they answered.

The school does not allow the students to leave the premises, but parents can visit their children once after two weeks.

“I handed over my son to the military after it (said) such kids (were being) taken away by the Taliban”, Ali Sher, 65, from Kabal, said. He said the Taliban kidnapped his son on his way home from school early this year.

As Taliban militants expanded their influence in the region, they coerced landlords to donate money or purchase weapons for them. They accepted young children as an alternative if a poor family could not pay the “donation for jihad”. The donations demanded ranged from Rs.50,000 (US $625) to as high as Rs.20 million (US $240,000).

But not every child was used for suicide bombing.

“The Taliban used to see who is good at what. So, these kids were doing the menial jobs also”, the Hum Pakistani Foundation psychiatrist said. The Taliban also sexually abused and tortured the kids.

The Taliban has destroyed around 500 schools, mostly for girls, in Swat and other areas in the North West Frontier Province and Federal Administered Tribal Areas along the border with Afghanistan. In Swat alone, 401 schools were destroyed to keep the youth as vulnerable as possible and the Hum Pakistani Foundation psychiatrist warns of dangers to peace if these vulnerable kids have no other options.

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