April 14, 2009
Pakistan's Taliban Generation
BY Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Editor's Note: "I believe in telling the truth," says filmmaker Sharmeed Obaid-Chinoy. Over webcam she tells us why she undertook such a dangerous journey in her native Pakistan to document how the Taliban are repressing young girls and recruitIng children to carry out suicide attacks. In this gripping interview, the filmmaker gives an update on some of the characters in her documentary and provides chilling behind-the-scenes details about her interview with a Taliban commander. She also offers field notes, below, from her reporting across Pakistan.
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A peace deal was officially signed this week between the Pakistan government and Taliban leaders in Swat Valley, a truce that guarantees the imposition of Sharia Law across this once peaceful tourist haven, home to approximately 1 million people. In return both militant and government forces have agreed to a ceasefire.
It's an uneasy settlement on many fronts, both for Pakistani moderates and for an international community that sees Pakistan as a critical security concern. The Taliban have been spreading their strict ideology across Swat and other parts of Pakistan for the last two years, often using violent reprisals. Through their growing network of religious schools and military training camps, they are raising a whole new generation of radicalized children.
In new developments, The New York Times just reported that the Taliban are now cutting deals with militant groups in Punjab, making inroads into Pakistan's most powerful and populous state.
While reporting Children of the Taliban, I saw chilling propaganda videos used to recruit and train children for suicide attacks. In one video, 25 children appear wearing the traditional Pakistani shalwar kameez. Sitting cross-legged on the ground, they rock back and forth reciting the Koran. A white bandana worn across their foreheads reads: "There is no God but God."
Housed in a bare compound, three young boys watch over the group holding automatic guns. Their teacher, dressed in brown military fatigues, paces the room reading from a book called, "Justifications for Suicide Bombing." Moving to a white board, he writes, "Reasons for killing a spy."
In the last few months, militants have forced business owners to close cinemas and barbershops. Diplomats from Iran and Afghanistan have been kidnapped, and an American aid worker shot dead. The Taliban's latest target is secular schools.
In another video, three teenage boys talk about their desire to become suicide bombers. We meet Zainullah, who later blows himself up killing six; then Sadique, who blows himself up killing 22; and Masood who kills 28. We're shown footage glorifying their attacks. The back drop to all this is a young child singing, "If you try to find me after I have died, you will never find my whole body, you will only find little pieces."
"Suicide" schools run by the Taliban are preparing a generation of boys to commit atrocities against civilians. Last year, suicide attacks struck right across Pakistan, killing more than 800 people. Pakistan's war is no longer confined to the lawless Tribal areas along the Afghan border, it has moved to the cities. Children are being killed, but they are also being turned into killers.
Earlier this year, when I was reporting in the northern city of Peshawar, home to two million people, the government was nominally in control. You could feel the tension of an encroaching Taliban across the city. In the last few months, militants have forced business owners to close cinemas and barbershops. Diplomats from Iran and Afghanistan have been kidnapped, and an American aid worker shot dead. The Taliban's latest target is secular schools.
Peshawar Middle School has been providing secular education to boys for the past 30 years. Two months ago, in the dead of the night, the Taliban blew up the front of the building. Their message: "Adopt Islamic ideals or close down." School administrators were shaken by the attack but determined to go on. Taliban threats have become a way of life for them.
Since the blast, the school has hired armed guards and set up a watchtower on top of the building. When I visited the school recently, a 15-year-old student told me: "The Taliban have really affected our city because they have created fear in the hearts of the people. They are trying to deter development in our country," said Ahsan Tahir.
School administrators have had a tough time convincing parents to return their children to school. Parents are worried that next time the Taliban will strike during the day while their children are in class. But students like Tahir see it differently. "We can't allow the Taliban to win," he said. "If we stop going to school, Pakistan will not have any engineers, doctors, lawyers, and the Taliban will succeed in pushing us back to the Dark Ages."