Zarak Khan, 16, needs to do little more than sit in his chair, flicking through TV channels, to bring a fond smile to his mother’s face. Rehma Bibi is simply glad to have her oldest son at home and safe. “They wanted to make him into a suicide bomber, but we got him away from the seminary school,” she said.
[Read this report in Arabic]
Rehma, her husband Shaukat and their four children, moved from the town of Kohat in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) almost a year ago, soon after removing Zarak from the seminary just outside the town where he had been enrolled since he was 12.
Shaukat had become alarmed by the teenager’s talk of suicide bombings and paradise - where he said those who carried out attacks on “enemies” went.
Fearing their son was being brainwashed into becoming a suicide bomber, the family moved to Lahore to ensure the teenager escaped the influence of his fanatical Islamic teachers and peers.
“We sent Zarak to a `madrassah’ (seminary) because we are poor and could not afford a regular school,” said Rehma. This is a common reality in today’s Pakistan.
|They wanted to make him into a suicide bomber, but we got him away from the seminary school.|
The family lives on an income of just under US$66 a month, the amount earned by Shaukat as a day labourer.
Most of the thousands of seminary schools dotted across Pakistan offer religious education, food and shelter free of charge to such families, but a few have developed links with extremist outfits which have unleashed violence across the country, say analysts and observers.
Suicide attacks on the rise
Over the past year, Pakistan has been struck by a wave of attacks, many involving suicide bombings. Fifty-six suicide bombings took place in 2007 alone, killing at least 636 people, including 419 members of Pakistan’s security forces.
A further four bombings in 2008 have already killed over 70 people - the most recent at a political rally on 11 February when a teenage suicide bomber blew himself up in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area near the Afghan border.
The toll of such attacks continues to rise, with suicide bombings having claimed over 2,000 victims in Pakistan over the past decade. Many others have been gravely injured - some disabled for life.
“Victims of the most brutal exploitation”
Many of the bombers who blew themselves up were children, while teenagers who have been arrested provide chilling accounts of how they had been imbued into carrying out similar attacks.
Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
|A suicide bomb blast victim in a Lahore hospital. Over recent months, many of the suicide bombers in Pakistan have been young people|
“These young boys are as much the victims of terrorism as those they kill. They are victims of the most brutal exploitation,” said Anees Khan, a Lahore-based psychologist who is carrying out a study on the use of children as bombers for a local non-governmental organisation (NGO).
The manner in which teenagers have been used in suicide bombings has become evident in recent months.
In December 2007, an attack in Kohat that killed 11 army cadets was carried out by a bomber aged 16 or 17 who detonated explosives strapped to his body as he approached his targets.
In January, a boy of around the same age blew himself up at a mosque in Peshawar in a sectarian attack on worshippers gathered there.
But it is the manner in which these boys are indoctrinated that is most revealing.
Just a few weeks earlier, Aitezaz Shah, 15, detained in the northern town of Dera Ismail Khan, told investigators how he had been recruited by extremists after dropping out of school in Karachi in May last year.
He said he had been assigned to act as a “back-up” bomber in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the chairperson of Pakistan’s populist People’s Party, who was killed in a suicide bombing on 27 December.
|These young boys are as much the victims of terrorism as those they kill. They are victims of the most brutal exploitation.|
Aitezaz had been trained at a `madrassah’ in the tribal area of South Waziristan and was preparing to carry out other attacks.
“We are still conducting interrogations and investigations in this matter,” said Pakistan Interior Ministry spokesman Brig Iqbal Cheema.
A year ago another 15-year-old Pakistani suicide bomber, Hainullah, trained in Waziristan, was arrested in neighbouring Afghanistan where he had been sent to carry out an attack on US troops there.
He said he was offered a “way out of a life of boredom” at a seminary in the area by a preacher who offered him visions of paradise, where rivers of milk and honey flowed, in exchange for giving up his life by becoming a suicide bomber.
A few months later, in a case that made headlines, a 14-year-old would-be bomber, Rafiqullah, was pardoned by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and sent back to Pakistan after being arrested wearing a “suicide vest” packed with explosives.
“It is a sad fact that a Muslim child was sent to a religious school to learn about Islam but was misled by the enemies of Afghanistan,” Karzai said at the time.