Children of the Taliban

The city of Peshawar is on high alert. The Taliban are closing in, regularly attacking police convoys, kidnapping diplomats, and shooting foreigners. The fighting across this volatile region has driven thousands of families from their homes and many have found shelter in Peshawar.

Correspondent Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is traveling across her fractured homeland to investigate the rising popularity of a new Pakistani branch of the Taliban, now threatening the major cities, blowing up girls’ schools and declaring war on the Pakistani state.

Her journey begins at a rehabilitation center in Peshawar, where she talks with many young victims caught in the crossfire of this war.

“We saw the dead body of a policeman tied to a pole,” an articulate young girl named Qainat tells the reporter quietly. “His head had been chopped off. It was hanging between his legs. There was a note saying that if anyone moved the dead body, they would share its fate.”

Before the Taliban took control of Qainat’s village, the women in her family attended university and worked. But now the Taliban has banned girls from going to school.

Qainat is from Swat, a 100-mile-long valley in the north of Pakistan, three hours drive from Peshawar. Until recently, Swat was known as the Switzerland of the east, and had a thriving tourist industry.

The Taliban often use radio broadcasts to drive home their message.

In one typical address, a preacher proclaims:
“Sharia Law is our right, and we will exercise this right whatever happens. We will make ourselves suicide bombers! I swear to God if our leader orders me, I will sacrifice myself… and blow myself up in the middle of our enemies.“
The Taliban have destroyed more than 200 government schools in Swat since they took control of the region. Walking through the rubble of a school that once taught 400 girls, the reporter comes across two nine-year-old girls who used to study there.

“Why did you like school?” she asks one of them.

“Because education is like a ray of light and I want that light,” she replies.

When the sound of mortar fire cuts the conversation short, the film crew leaves quickly, passing through the main square. Locals have renamed it “Khooni Chowk” (“bloody square”) for all the public beheadings the Taliban now carry out there.

One Swat teenager explains how he joined the Taliban a year ago, when he was 13. First it was the sermons at the mosque, then being recruited to a madrassa, and finally spending months in military training.
“They teach us to use a machine gun, Kalashnikov…Then they teach us how to do a suicide attack,” he tells our reporter.

Wasifullah and Abdurrahman are best friends, but they have different ideas of who is to blame for this war. Both boys fled their village when the Pakistani Army began bombing. Their district was also targeted by American missile strikes. In one of those strikes, Wasifullah’s 12-year-old cousin was killed.
“We brought his remains home in bags,” he explains with little expression. “We could only find his legs so we buried them in our village.”
There have been more than 30 U.S. missile strikes in the tribal areas in the last year. They target Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, but civilians are often killed as well. It’s an easy recruiting tool for the Taliban, and Wasifullah is eager to sign up.
But his best friend Abdurrahman blames Al Qaeda for the destruction of their village. He would prefer to become a captain in the Pakistan Army. The two friends sadly represent the fault lines in this unstable nation.

In a village 6 hours from Peshawar, it is the first time that the new deputy leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, has been filmed.
Arriving in an American Humvee his men have just captured in an attack on a NATO convoy, he tells the cameraman, “If America continues bombing the tribal areas… and martyrs innocent people…then we are compelled to attack them.” He also sends a message to Islamabad: “If the Pakistani leaders and army maintain their stance… then we will take control of Peshawar and other cities.”
This is no empty threat. The war has already arrived in the capital and Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi.
Back in Karachi, Obaid-Chinoy finds that her native city has become a new safe haven for the Taliban. She visits one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, which local police concede has become heavily infiltrated by the Taliban. Most of the children here already study at small madrassas.
After their lessons, some of the boys play cricket on a strip of wasteland close to school. One of them is Shaheed, which means “martyr.” He is 14 and one of 200 pupils at the school, most of whom come from extremely poor families.
The state education system in Pakistan has virtually collapsed, leaving more than 1.5 million children studying at schools like this one. Sitting down to be interviewed, Shaheed explains what Sharia Law has taught him about women.

“The government should forbid women and girls from wandering around outside,” he says calmly. “Just like the government banned plastic bags — no one uses them any more — we should do the same with women.”
Shaheed’s teacher defends the school, saying it promotes only peace and harmony, not terrorism, but away from the camera, he tells another story.
When asked who he thinks will win this war, his response is chilling:
“No matter how many Muslims die, we will never run out of sacrificial lambs.”

After lengthy negotiations, she meets with Qari Abdullah, who makes no attempt to hide his face.
“We never used to fight against Pakistan, because we thought the Army were Muslims,” he tells her. “But when they started bombing us, we had to do jihad against them.”
When she asks him about using young children to carry out such attacks, he replies:

“Children are tools to achieve God’s will. And whatever comes your way, you sacrifice it.” He then reveals that he recruits children as young as 5, 6, and 7 years old.

Coming to the end of her bleak journey, Obaid-Chinoy reminds us that there are 80 million children in Pakistan, many of them living in poverty. If the militants continue to expand their war and to recruit children freely, as they do now, then Pakistan may soon belong to them.
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