The Friday Times: May 29-June 4, 2009
Sanam Maher enters the Taliban’s dark heart
‘If you try to find me after I have died,
You will never find my body whole,
You will find me in little pieces…’
A child’s voice singing out on a Taliban propaganda video arrests you from the opening moments of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Pakistan’s Taliban Generation (October Films). This clarion call is accompanied by images – rows of young boys sway in unison, in prayer, in what seems to be a make-shift classroom. A white headband inscribed with a Quranic verse tightly binds their foreheads, a black swathe of cloth covers their heads. The crisp, clean shalwar kameezes they wear are color-coded: white, grey and blue. They are watched over by a teacher in military fatigues, boots and a black hood. Three armed men surround the compound of the ‘class-room’. Their voices in chorus, the boys read from Qurans nestled in their hands – their actions are precise, defined.
The video introduces you to Zainullah, sitting astride a motorcycle. Sadiq, his Kalashnikov in his arms, smiles as he recites from the Quran. And finally, Masood, who chats animatedly to the camera. We find out baby-faced Zainullah blew himself up, killing six. A blood-spattered wall is the last image of Sadiq, who killed 22. The toll ratchets up with Masood, who leaves 28 dead with his final act of violence.
The video cuts to the images of the mangled metal body of a motorcycle. Policemen inspect a scene of carnage, sift through the debris – investigating, wondering, trying to find clues, hoping to identify the attacker. We see bewildered, bloodied survivors led away by medics or surrounded by bystanders. We can imagine the scream of ambulances. Journalists jostle for photographs and video-footage as policemen mill about, on their cell phones. The underlying message that accompanies all these images: Look at the chaos these young boys can wreck.
As reporter Sharmeen Obaid explains, ‘the Taliban are running suicide schools, preparing a generation of boys for atrocities against civilians.’ The documentary, screened last Friday in Karachi, is ‘a journey to find out how young Pakistanis are being recruited and how civilian casualties from the war on terror are pushing children into the arms of militants… how children are being recruited in the heart of Pakistan’s cities for terrorist attacks abroad.’
Pakistan’s Taliban Generation leads Obaid across the country. As she travels to Bajaur, she finds a wasteland, a cruel reminder of the collateral damage from a war between the government and militants. There are no civilians to be found in Loisam, ‘one of the major towns in Bajaur’. Miles of land are dotted with trees stripped of all greenery. All the houses have been razed, all buildings flattened. The mountains look over the rubble of what was ‘once the trading center of the Bajaur Valley,’ with a population of 7,000. The army felt ‘the only way to free the town of the militants was to destroy it…they claim to have killed more than 1500 Taliban,’ Obaid learns.
Later, in search of those left homeless in the crossfire between the government and militants, Sharmeen finds herself at Kachegori Camp, on the outskirts of Peshawar. It is currently a settlement for more than 30,000 people. Barefoot children play in the dirt against a backdrop of UNHCR and UNICEF-emblazoned tents. Here, Sharmeen meets Waseefullah, a young boy who has fled his village in Bajaur, after it was the target of U.S.-missile strikes. ‘My cousin was one of the students killed in the madrassa,’ he says. ‘His body was being eaten by dogs. We brought his remains home in bags. We could only find his legs, so we buried them in our village.’
Footage of the village after the strike reveals a grim picture – relatives peek under shrouds, trying to identify the bodies of their loved ones. A mound of chappals recovered from the wreckage grows in size as volunteers sift through the detritus. The images of chaos and disorder are eerily familiar – such strikes, Obaid says, are an ‘indiscriminate weapon’. A weapon not unlike a suicide bombing, one might argue. At a recruitment rally soon after the strike, Taliban leaders cry out, ‘Oh God, protect Osama… protect Mullah Omar. Are there any men equal to them in this world?’ Waseefullah was in the crowd that day and it seems to have left a lasting impression on him. He wants to join the Taliban.
Waseefullah’s story is just one of many boys in the documentary. Hazrat Ali, a 14 year-old who has just returned from fighting with the Taliban tells Obaid how he was recruited to the cause. ‘They first call us to the mosque and preach to us,’ he says. ‘Then they take us to a madrassa and teach us things from the Quran… they teach us to use machine guns, Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers, grenades, bombs. They ask us to use them only against the infidels.’ Finally, he says, ‘they teach us how to do a suicide attack.’ Would he carry out such an attack? Yes, he replies, ‘if God gives me the strength.’
A Taliban recruiter Obaid encounters on the outskirts of Karachi confirms Hazrat Ali’s story. Children ‘want to join us because they like our weapons,’ says Qari Abdullah, sitting cross-legged and swaying back and forth hypnotically as madrassa students often do while reciting the Quran. ‘They don’t use the weapons to begin with. They just carry them for us,’ he explains. ‘They follow us around because they are just small children.’ A child-recruit himself, Qari Abdullah says, ‘If you’re fighting, then God provides you with the means. Children are tools to achieve God’s will. And whatever comes your way, you sacrifice it.’ Qari Abdullah tells Obaid his students are as young as 5 years old.
As I watched the propaganda video once more, Zainullah’s cherubic face stayed in my mind. According to Qari Abdullah’s training, such children are transformed in an almost-Lynchian manner into the very weapons they carry for their teachers or leaders. Qari Abdullah’s ironic assessment – ‘they are just small children’ – is void of any meaning by the conclusion of the documentary. Such an idea is further reinforced as Obaid speaks with a madrassa teacher in Karachi, known simply as ‘Qari sahib’. ‘We will never run out of sacrificial lambs,’ he says. ‘Non-Muslims only think about this world. But Muslims consider this an opportunity to achieve martyrdom. Someone who sees death as a blessing, who can defeat him?’ No child remains a child in this war – they are indefatigable machines, tools or ‘weapons’.
In a question-and-answer session that followed the screening here in Karachi, Obaid said the rise in suicide bombings since 2008 was the catalyst for ‘a film on how people are recruited’ to such causes and ‘what the war is doing to those people’. As she speaks to Shaheed, a student at a madrassa in Karachi, we find important inroads into the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the incidence of such attacks. ‘When I look at suicide bombers my age or younger than me,’ Shaheed says, ‘I get so inspired by their terrific attacks.’ He is eager to carry out such an attack internationally, where he feels he can target the greatest number of ‘infidels’. Shaheed explains that ‘on the Day of Judgment, God will ask, “Why did you do that?”’ As he tells Obaid, ‘I will answer, ‘My Lord! Only to make you happy! I have laid down my life fighting the infidels. Then God will look at my intention. If my intention was to eradicate evil for Islam, to glorify Islam, then I will be rewarded with Paradise.’ Obaid says she was struck by how ‘each child had a desire to be someone and something…to do something in the name of Islam’.
However, senior police officer Raja Omar Khattab views sentiments such as Shaheeds in a different light. ‘They say what they are doing is right and everyone else is wrong,’ he says. ‘From very early in their lives, hatred has been bred into them… there is so much hatred inside them, they believe they have no place in this world,’ Khattab argues. Furthermore, he says, ‘they become frustrated and the people who take advantage of them know how to charm them.’ While such a view may have its merits in considering the exploitative nature of child-recruitment by militant organizations, it is also a reductionist opinion. When Sharmeen encounters Shaheed, he is playing cricket with a group of boys on the fringes of Karachi’s Baldia Town. What strikes you is the image of his boyish face, devoid of expression, as he talks about ‘killing infidels’. This is not a boy pulsating with hatred, but a child who has rote-learned his teachers words.
As recently as April 23, the media reported that the Taliban have trained as many as 5,000 children between the ages of 10 to 17 years for ‘suicide missions’. Lets not forget that the suspected ‘back-up bomber’ in Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, Aitzaz Shah, is also just 17 years old. If we are ever to address the problems of this militaristic generation, Obaid argues, we must tackle ‘the symptoms that still exist in society that gave rise to this generation.’ Acknowledging the mercurial divide between the ‘have’ and ‘have-nots’ Sharmeen insisted, ‘any one of us could be those children’. In Karachi, the elite Anti-Terrorist Squad take Obaid through the city slums, pointing out several ‘unregulated’ madrassas that have mushroomed in the neighborhood and provide shelter to militant outfits that often use extortion and kidnapping to fund their activities.
As Sharmeen found in Bajaur, several ‘middle-tier army men’ who were unable to speak to the media were sympathetic to those who had been driven from their homes – ‘They said, “We’ll never be able to rebuild (their destroyed villages) and they’ll never forgive us,”’ Obaid said. When she is driven from the Kachegori IDP Camp after threats from suspected Taliban informants, we are immediately alerted to the fact that there are those within these impoverished camps who would prey on those eager for revenge.
Militant recruiter Qari Abdullah explains, ‘We never used to fight against Pakistan because we thought the army were Muslims. But when they started bombing us, we had to do jihad against them.’ His words find their echo in Tehrik-e-Taliban Deputy Commander Hakimullah Mehsud’s proclamation that, ‘if the Pakistani leaders and army maintain their stance, then we will take control of Peshawar and other cities.’ It seems child-militants and suicide bombings are one way to wrest control, an effective means to throw the system in disarray. The army, apparently, is painfully aware of the ‘punishment’ being meted out to them – a wounded soldier Sharmeen meets tells her the Taliban ‘hate’ the army because of ‘the American policies we adopted… that is why we are suffering.’
Sharmeen explains that the Taliban were able to gain the ground they have through ‘vision’ and a ‘cohesive policy’ that the government of Pakistan was ‘slow to come up with.’ She argues that the militant outfit is ‘very cohesive about what they think about us’ and a similar strategy is needed if they are ever to be successfully combated. Throughout the documentary, we are able to see glimpses of this ‘cohesive strategy’. Radio broadcasts and sermons designed to intimidate infiltrate the airwaves in Swat – one such broadcast claims, ‘Sharia law is our right and we will exercise this right whatever happens… we will shed our blood to achieve this. We will make our sons suicide bombers… we will make ourselves suicide bombers…’ Meanwhile, locals in Swat have renamed a square ‘Khooni Chawk’, ‘because of the public beheadings the Taliban carry out here.’ Kainat, aged 10 and living with her injured mother in Peshawar’s Paraplegic Center, tells Sharmeen, ‘One day we were walking back to our village. We saw the dead body of a policeman tied to a pylon… his head had been chopped off. It was hanging between his legs. There was a note saying if anyone moved the dead body, they would share its fate.’ As Zarlasht and Rukhsar, two 9 year old girls, show Obaid around the rubble of their destroyed school in Swat, we notice that the blackboards still bear chalk-marks from the last lessons and the paint on the school walls is still a fresh lemon-yellow and green – the destruction is very recent. Rukhsar’s father informs Sharmeen that the people of the valley are ‘scared’ and listen to the Taliban-radio broadcasts to ‘know the latest edicts, so we can obey them.’ As schools across the valley are razed to the ground, Obaid tells us ‘the Taliban now run their own schools’ and provide ‘free food and shelter and sometimes pay… a monthly stipend’ to students families as incentives.
As Sharmeen points out, ‘The government may run the city, but it’s the Taliban the people fear.’
Pakistan’s Taliban Generation, produced for television, clocks in at 47 minutes. Obaid says her crew filmed for an estimated 100 hours – while the documentary attempts to cover the widest possible ground, the time limit is often frustrating as several questions remain unanswered. When Shaheed tells Sharmeen he would carry out a suicide attack as soon as he receives his father’s permission, I was curious to learn about one unheard voice – how do the parents of such children feel?
The documentary ends with a cautionary note – Pakistan is home to 80 million children, with more than quarter of this number below the poverty line. And as Obaid says, ‘if the militants continue to recruit freely, then soon, Pakistan will belong to them.’ The screening attempted to address this problem – more than 200,000 rupees were also raised on the night for the Peshawar Paraplegic Center and in order to aid Zarlasht, Rukhsar and Kainat’s education.