Children have learned to tell the difference between the sound of artillery fire and a suicide blast.

BRANDISHING toy guns, dummy rocket launchers and with staves in hand, over 100 hooded children, between five and 12 years, marched in the main bazaar of the Barikot tehsil in Swat shouting full-throated slogans of ‘Long live Tehrik-i-Taliban Swat’.

The children’s protests were aimed at a security barrier that had been set up on the road linking the district’s main town of Mingora to a nearby village. Hundreds of people went past indifferently, but as a visitor I was taken aback. I had never seen such a protest in the valley before.

One can hardly draw a parallel, but the children’s protest in Swat seemed eerily reminiscent of scenes of 13th century Europe during the Crusades. At that time, the religious frenzy had affected even children. Thousands of them, many not even in their teens, had amassed in France and Germany to proceed to Jerusalem. The extremist tendencies died down when a majority of them perished en route to the holy city while others ended up as slaves in Egypt. Historians remember this lost generation as ‘minor prophets’ — the products of medieval society’s fanatical religiosity.

Today children in the NWFP and Fata are under the spell of increasing Talibanisation — which is a frightening sign that the country’s northwest has already been lost to militancy and extremism. This is an incalculable price no nation can afford to pay as it turns itself into a front-line state in a war which many perceive as being fought less for a just cause and more for the monetary remuneration it brings.

In Swat, children have gone through tremendous suffering during the last two years of bloodshed. With their young minds gripped by the rhetoric of terror-spewing clerics and their schools serving as the security forces’ bunkers, children have been left to count the sorties of gunship helicopters. They have learned to differentiate between the sound of artillery fire from a mortar attack and the blast generated by the teenage suicide bomber, who until he blew himself up, had been living down the street. Prolonged curfews have limited their view to family courtyards and given them an idea for a new game ‘curfew curfew’, in which riding their bikes, they circumvent mock security barriers to reach a given destination within a specified time.

While standing under an apricot tree in the Charbagh area in the outskirts of Mingora and looking on as militants released 50 security men captured last year, I asked a skinny 10-year-old his name. Without looking at me, he replied, ‘Rehmanullah.’ He was the youngest of four brothers and was studying in fourth grade. His father, he said, was a farmer and could not meet his family’s expenses. Three brothers had joined the militants of hard-line cleric Maulana Fazlullah. Still it came as a shock when Rehmanullah indicated his career choice. He too wanted to become a Talib.

Under these circumstances, it is quite natural for many parents in Swat to be disturbed. They narrate horrible tales of children who have developed the vocabulary of warriors and professional soldiers. Some children disappeared, with their parents getting to know after many years of searching for them that they had been turned into suicide bombers, leaving behind not even an organ to be buried according to rites in the ancestral graveyard. The problems are accumulating — especially for thousands of families where the male members are abroad to earn a livelihood and not home to keep an eye on their sons.

The militarisation of young minds is growing with the release of four jihadi CDs, in which terror is packaged for the consumption of teenage boys in the form of interviews with young suicide bombers and horrible displays of decapitations. Small children pushing handcarts sell such CDs in Mingora. The young vendors say that the videos have high sales in the target group — the youth. The efforts of four students of Khyber Medical College help to place this phenomenon in a wider perspective. These students have completed a study covering 12 schools in relatively peaceful Peshawar to assess the psychological impact of suicide bombing on children between 12 and 15 years.The survey had 15 questions.

The findings revealed that 80 per cent of the students were aware of the nature and purpose of suicide bombings and eight per cent showed a readiness to carry out suicide attacks themselves — though not necessarily for ideological reasons — saying that such attacks were part of the solution and not of the problem. Eight per cent admitted to having witnessed bombing scenes, while 22 per cent had seen their relatives fall victim to such attacks.Twelve per cent were reluctant to attend schools, while 69 per cent said they avoided visiting public places for fear of attacks. It is pointed out that the militancy brew consists of disorientation — resulting from a feeling of uprootedness among the internally displaced — and indoctrination.

Dislocated youth qualify more readily than other segments of society. The last four years of confrontation in the NWFP and Fata have seen major disruptions in normal routines. Militancy and military operations have dented the social order and caused distrust of the state and its institutions. No surprise that this chaos has caused subversive elements to successfully indoctrinate youth who have lost their sense of direction. Thus, in militancy-hit areas youngsters between 12 and 18 years of age are the most vulnerable group to fall into the Taliban’s subversive net.

Eleven camps set up for the internally displaced at different places in the NWFP provide a valuable insight into the impact of conflict on dislocated children. Out of 100,000 residents of camps, children comprise 60 per cent of the total IDP population. Some children show signs of such passivity that it borders on phobia, while others suffer from irritability, restlessness and, above all, aggression.

There are the traumatised ones who lie in their tents all day long and weep sporadically. Jets are the most dreaded objects and make them cry while running for cover. Child-friendly spaces arranged by NGOs inside the camps are needed corners where children receive psychiatric treatment. However, those looking after the children here say that flashbacks of the violence they have experienced haunt them; this is also reflected in their paintings and sketches.

In a country, where militancy is institutionalised and terror is romanticised —as Talibanisation is — it is easy to see that enough raw material is available to fuel the terror industry that thrives on brutality. Militancy is not only haunting our present, it has infested our future as well.

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