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Jehad's child warriors

Print edition : Oct 10, 2003 T+T-

Jehadi groups step up the recruitment of children for their operations in Kashmir, and they are assisted in this by unemployment and the poor state of the rural economy, among others.

in Bandipora

IF a power blackout had not stopped his relatives from watching television, Ishfaq Bhat would have been hiding out on Kashmir's Tangdhar mountains with a Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder, and not struggling with a problem in mathematics set by his decidedly unsympathetic Class VIII teacher.

Early in July, a Lashkar-e-Toiba recruiter walked into the National High School at the village of Vijhar near Bandipora. The six children he spoke to claim, at least in front of their parents, that they were told he was looking to put together a cricket team to play a match. The story is open to dispute, since the school has a team of its own, and matches rarely begin at 7 p.m., the time the group finally gathered on the edge of the forest at nearby Arin. Bhat's relatives in Arin heard the hubbub and recognised him among the children. They correctly assumed he was going into the hills for arms training, and raised a furore. An argument broke out between the villagers and the recruiter, who chose discretion over valour and fled into the forest. Late that night, the children were back home.

Over a hundred teenagers, some as young as 12, have been rescued from terrorist groups since January this year. An estimated 500 teenagers in Jammu and Kashmir have not been so lucky. Variously lured or press-ganged into service by Pakistan-backed jehadi organisations, hundreds of young recruits are receiving arms training in the heavily forested mountains that surround the Kashmir Valley. Others have been pushed into service in the war raging on the heights of Poonch and Doda. Most of them receive rudimentary arms training, and work as cooks, cleaners, porters and guides. Those who pass this test well are sent to Pakistan for further training; others are despatched back to set up safehouses and infrastructure for the jehadi groups. Although no one has definite figures, several of these young recruits are believed to have died in encounters between terrorists and the Indian security forces.

What is making hundreds of teenagers leave their homes and march towards certain death? No one knows for certain, but Frontline's investigation detected some broad themes. Some of the six teenagers who were recruited in Vijhar had repeatedly failed school examinations, and some had dropped out to take unpaid apprenticeships in jobs with no future. Bhat, for example, had just failed his 8th standard examination, and was forced to repeat the year. The family had come down hard on the boy. "Jobs are hard to come by," Bhat's father Mohammad Yusuf Bhat explains. Another member of the group, 16-year-old Mumtaz Ahmad Dar, had failed twice in succession. "After this," says his father Ghulam Mohammad, who does casual jobs as a carpenter, "I pulled him out of school and made him work as an apprentice with a tailor in Bandipora. He doesn't get paid, but at least he will learn a trade."

Even the families of the better off among the `Vijhar six' reacted in a similar manner. Tanveer Ahmad Malik failed his 10th examinations, much to the dismay of his parents. His father retired from service as a forest ranger, a prestigious post in government service; his brother is a government-employed college lecturer. The desperate family is now sending him for computer training in a small concern in Bandipora, but is aware that the skills he learns there are unlikely to get him a job in the fiercely competitive software world. The oldest member of the group, Sonaullah Dar, has already seen how hard life can be. After dropping out of school, he works as a tailor and embroider, but faces insults at home because he contributes little to the family. "Nobody comes to tailors anymore," he says, "even people in our village buy ready-made clothes. I simply cannot support a family."

LOW self-esteem and frustration could well have enabled the unknown Lashkar-e-Toiba recruiter to find prospective volunteers at Vijhar. The six teenagers are very different from the first wave of ethnic-Kashmiri recruits who joined terrorist groups in the late 1980s. That generation of terrorists was older, and much of the leadership had a background of political or religious activism. Not a single person from Vijhar, interestingly, joined that first wave of terrorists; nor did anyone since the six children were interdicted at Arin. The village has lost only two lives to terrorism. Mohammad Munawar Mir was killed by the Lashkar-e-Toiba in 1995 because six of his sons and nephews work for the Indian Army. Schoolteacher Ali Mohammad Dar was killed a year earlier by the Ikhwan-ul-Muslimeen, a then-covert counter-terrorist group, because of his links with the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Hizbul Mujahideen.

It is also possible that some of the current recruitment has to do with the creeping crisis in Jammu and Kashmir's agricultural economy. Although reforms carried out during the regime of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah created an egalitarian ambience in the countryside, population growth made small holdings simply unable to sustain the sons of the first generation of land-revolution beneficiaries. None of the Vijhar six are the eldest sons of their families, the traditional inheritors of land. In an economy where little forward movement is under way to create rural industries, the younger sons have only hard-to-find government jobs to look to.

Farmers in the Bandipora belt readily acknowledge the problem. "Boys from other villages have gone into the mountains recently," says Mohammad Yakub, a resident of Kyunus on the banks of the Wullar lake, "but not from ours." "Some families here have expanded their land by encroaching on the lake," he says, "and others supplement their income by fishing or gathering water-chestnuts and so on."

Sadly, there are few serious studies over the possible linkages of the rural economy with the ongoing recruitment of teenagers by terrorist groups. It is also possible that cultural factors play a role. For many teenagers, the romance of waging war for a supposedly righteous cause could also offer a liberation from a life in which they have little income, less respect, and no future at all. "I've come across cases," says Bandipora Deputy Superintendent of Police Khalid Madni, "where the Pakistani terrorists in the mountains give kids Rs.500 and ask them to purchase something trivial, like a few packets of cigarettes or some batteries. They let them keep the change. Romance, escape from school, money, what more could a kid want?" It is a sentiment some village elders share. "I fought with Sheikh Abdullah's militia against the Pakistanis in 1947-48," recalls Vijhar resident Ghulam Mohammad Lone, "and it was the best time of my life. If you want proof that children here want to do something exciting, look at the lines outside Army and police recruitment rallies."

Hindi film machismo, wrote Pakistani journalist Mohammad Amir Rana, was the inspiration for many jehadi recruits; the jehad itself was an opportunity to put it into practice. The down side of jehadi adventure, of course, is that it does not last long. An investigation by Frontline had found that most of the 20 terrorists who were claimed to have been killed in a 2001 encounter near Khari Dhoke in Hil Kaka were in fact children taken up to the Surankote area as slave labour. Army operations earlier this year in Hil Kaka had shown that jehadi groups continue to put teenagers in harm's way. One survivor, 12-year-old Altaf Husain, gave an idea of life as a Lashkar recruit. "We trainees were given food only once a day while the commanders, who hailed from Pakistan, used to take food three times," Husain said. Most of the children never saw a gun, and were used instead to clean dishes, haul firewood, and cook food. According to another child recruit, Mohammad Younus of Harmain near Shopian, there were five major hideouts around Hil Kaka, which housed some 75 Lashkar cadre. Forty of these, he said, were armed terrorists; the rest, children press-ganged from villages in Poonch and southern Kashmir.

UNLIKE the Vijhar six, many recruits are simply press-ganged into service. On August 3, 13-year-old Mohammad Yasin Wani, a resident of Neel in Doda, and 17-year-old Rafiq Poddar, a resident of nearby Suranga, were kidnapped at gunpoint by a Lashkar-e-Toiba group. Residents of both villages were told that they had to contribute one recruit each to the organisation, or face reprisals. Both children were lucky. After the parents complained to the Doda police, an operation succeeded in rescuing them from a mountain hideout a week later. Later that month, the Doda police succeeded in busting a major recruitment ring, run by Imtiaz Ahmad, an Arabic teacher working at a seminary in Patimahal, and Shabbir Ahmad, the headman of the village, whose brother is a senior Lashkar-e-Toiba commander active in the area. Almost a dozen teenagers have since been rescued in operations by the 10 Rashtriya Rifles battalion and the Doda police.

Although few recruits actually make it to training camps in Pakistan, new evidence has emerged of horrific conditions at training camps run by jehadi groups there. On September 13, Border Security Force (BSF) personnel at the Rorawala border outpost near Wagah interdicted two Kashmir residents while they were trying to cross into India - 18-year-old Arshad Ahmad Mir, from Rainawari in downtown Srinagar, and 25-year-old Mukhtiar Ahmad Sofi. They said they had been kidnapped by Hizbul Mujahideen cadre near Gulmarg on August 19, while picnicking in the forests above the resort town. They were then force-marched for 18 days, before reaching a training camp in Muzaffarabad. They left the camp on the pretext of needing treatment for injuries sustained during training, and reached Lahore by bus on September 13. From there they reached the village of Wagah and sneaked past Pakistani border guards.

According to Mir and Sofi, any resistance to orders at the Muzaffarabad camp was punished with brutal assault by Pakistan Army officers present there. Part of the training consisted of lectures on Islamist ideology, focussed on the need for warfare against enemies of the faith. The majority of the 250-odd people present in the camp, Mir and Sofi say, were Kashmiris - mostly young people kidnapped from villages across the State. The rest were Pakistani nationals, along with a smattering of volunteers from Sudan and Afghanistan. Children who have escaped from terror camps in the past, notably at least two Hil Kaka survivors, have also suggested that sexual and physical abuse is common. Efforts to escape are often met with beatings, and sometimes execution.

There is, sadly, little infrastructure to help survivors cope with their trauma. Although the Army provides education and financial assistance to many children it rescues, it is hard for them to return to their villages for fear of reprisals from jehadi organisations.

The recruitment goes on. On September 13, villagers from hamlets around the mountain town of Gool filed reports saying that five children had been picked up by unidentified terrorists. The recruitment of young people by terrorist groups is not really new. Since the early 1990s, there have been cases of children throwing grenades at security force pickets in the Kashmir Valley. The trend is alarming. "In the early 1990s," says Inspector-General of Police K. Rajendra, "perhaps a handful of children were involved. Last year, we knew of a 100-odd children being recruited and taken into the mountains. This year isn't through, and that number has already quadrupled."

There is a well-established international consensus against the use of children in wars, a tragic feature of many low-intensity conflicts worldwide. Unsurprisingly, however, the warriors of the jehad do not care for conventions authored in Geneva.