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Catch them young

Print edition : Nov 24, 2001 T+T-

With children being increasingly favoured as recruits for terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir seems set to face the prospect of a second lost generation.

MUZAFFAR WANI spent most of July 18 whimpering in fear, certain that the barrage of machine gun and rocket fire that was falling all around him would soon bring down the abandoned stone hut behind which he was cowering. At night, surprised to find himself still alive, the Jaish-e-Mohammad recruit made his way through the forests that carpet the Hill Kaka mountains to the town of Surankote and gave himself up to the first policeman he saw. Given the reputation of Jaish-e-Mohammad cadre for the commitment to their cause, Wani's actions were unusual. But then, so is he. This terrorist is just 16, an unexceptional 9th grade student from a lower middle class family in Srinagar.

In July, 21 members of the Jaish-e-Mohammad were killed in a 10-day Army operation that targeted concrete fortifications put up by the organisation in the Surankote area. All but four of those killed are believed to have been teenagers from the Kashmir Valley and Doda - coerced into service and waiting to be taken to training camps across the Line of Control (LoC). Since early this year, hundreds of children are known to have been forced into the ranks of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahideen. Dozens have been arrested and returned to their homes by the Army, the Border Security Force and the Jammu and Kashmir Police, but many more have died while crossing the LoC.

Gulzar Ahmad Bhat knows just how lucky he is to be able to look forward to celebrating his 15th birthday next year. Early this summer, Bhat had tired of being reprimanded for his poor marks and his lack of interest in the family business. His closest friend, 14-year-old Aijaz Wani too was unhappy with his school record - unimpressive when compared with that of his brother Muzammil, who recently obtained a degree in medicine from Bihar. Fifteen-year-old Moha-mmad Ibrahim Labe was fed up for very different reasons. He had never been to school, for his family has little money. He worked long, poorly-paid hours as a carpenter. The three unhappy teenagers developed deep bonds of friendship - and a marijuana habit that was introduced to them by two 20-year-old unemployed men in the neighbourhood.

In July, Sajjad Dar and Tanvir Bhat were contacted by a man they knew only by the code name of Maulvi. He offered them cash and weapons if they volunteered to train in Pakistan. The three youngsters were seduced by the romance of the experience that lay ahead. "I'd always wanted to go to Pakistan, to have a gun, to live the life of a mujahid (holy warrior)," said Gulzar Bhat. "I never really stopped to think I might get killed," he explained. On August 15, the boys told their parents they were going for a picnic, and left for Shopian by taxi. Meanwhile, scared off by the heightened patrols, Maulvi's accomplices failed to meet the runaway children. When they returned, the BSF's 51 Battalion was waiting. The children cursed their bad fortune, until they learned that Maulvi was the same operative who had sent Wani and his friends to Surankote.

But very few of the children who joined the Jaish-e-Mohammad's ranks seem to have known just what they were getting themselves into. In early May, 17-year-old Manzoor Najar, an 11th grade student, and his childhood friend Shaukat Ahmad Bhat, a school dropout who worked as a bus conductor, were contacted by a Jaish operative. "He told us," says Najar, "that he was setting up a charity to distribute money to poor people, and that our help was needed." In early June, both boys left their homes in Gulshanabad, near Pulwama, and headed for the remote mountain village of Kellar. The next morning, they along with six other children from the Pulwama area were taken at gunpoint across the Pir Panjal mountains.

On the Surankote heights, along with some 70 other children, Najar and Bhat were housed in stone huts and subjected to intense indoctrination. Bhat recalls: "There were four teachers, all of them from Punjab, in Pakistan. They used to give us lessons on the jehad from an Urdu book, on why the Sufi religion we practise in Kashmir was wrong, and on the differences between their Deobandi sect and the Barelvis, who we were taught were apostates." Arguments, he said, were not encouraged. "At one point I questioned one of the teachers about the jehad. I told him that Islam taught us to respect and care for our parents, but here we were up in the mountains, having abandoned them," Najar recalled. Najar was promptly rewarded with a beating.

Yet to make the crossing into Pakistan, the boys were taught basic mountain survival techniques. But forced marches across the mountains, a spartan diet of corn rotis and chillies, the bitter cold and endless tension soon provoked rebellion. "Some boys managed to escape from the area," but most were caught. Two of them were brought before all of us and beaten until their legs broke. After that, we were forbidden to speak Kashmiri with each other - in case we tried to plot another escape," said Bhat. Over the next few weeks, the boys watched as groups of terrorists from Pakistan, on their way to Doda and the Kashmir Valley, passed through Surankote. The Indian Army was then observing the Ramzan ceasefire, but everyone knew that sooner or later the Army would make its way up the mountains.

When the Hill Kaka encounter began, most of the Jaish-e-Mohammad's child recruits were divided into three groups and ordered into the forests. No opportunity was given to those who remained to surrender. No attempt was made to inform approaching troops that unarmed children were present inside the bunkers on Hill Kaka. Initially Bhat hid himself in an underground cement bunker, but slipped away when night fell. He later met Najar in the surrounding forests, from where they sought help from Gujjar herdsmen to make their way back to Gulshanabad. Some of the friends they had made in Surankote were not so lucky. Bashir Ahmad and Javed Ahmad Itoo of the nearby village of Sanchuk were killed in the encounter.

Children from poor rural homes generally have less choice than those who went to Surankote. In August, the BSF's 171 Battalion arrested eight youngsters from the villages of Dadampora and Kheri after they made an abortive attempt to cross into Pakistan with a Lashkar-e-Toiba unit. Among the group was 15-year-old Bilal Ahmad. "One Friday, we had all gone to the local ziarat (shrine) for prayers. Five men showed up there, and told us we would have to join the Lashkar-e-Toiba, or they would punish our mothers and sisters. We discussed matters amongst ourselves, and finally decided we had no choice. If we told our parents, they would not let us go. On the other hand, we did not want our families hurt," Bilal recalled.

Early next morning, the group left for the Brariwan forests, above Hanjura. There they were met by six armed Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists. They were now told that the route across the Pir Panjal into Pakistan was blocked by Army patrols. A fresh date was set to attempt a crossing. In the meanwhile, however, their parents had informed the BSF that several children were missing. When the children made their way back to their homes, they were promptly arrested. Bilal Ahmad, the son of a butcher, who has never been to school and spent much of his childhood working in a carpet factory, believes that the nightmare has not ended yet. "What if the terrorists come and ask us to go to Pakistan again? Are we in any position to refuse?" he asks. "The next time, we might never come back," he adds.

However, not all child recruits are deployed in operational roles. On June 18, 16-year-old Imtiaz Ahmad Dar was returning from school when a car pulled up alongside. The two passengers in the vehicle told him they had some work with him. The terrified boy quietly sat down in the back seat. He was driven to Kellar, and locked up in a safehouse used by the Jaish-e-Mohammad. For over two months, the 9th standard student cooked, cleaned dishes and washed clothes. He was told not to complain, since he was rendering a service to the jehad. "I told them once or twice that I wanted to go home, but they just beat me. There was no chance of escape because there were always men with guns around," Dar said.

In late August, Dar's desperate family heard that their son had been spotted in a dhoke, the stone shelter used by Gujjar herdsmen, above Kellar. His mother, Naseema Dar, promptly drove up to the mountain village and demanded that the Jaish-e-Mohammad release her son. "They just pushed my mother out of the door, and told her to go away. But she just stood there crying. I started crying too. After a while, they finally told me I could go," Dar said. Naseema Dar's enormous courage saved her son, but the fact remains that most families never come to know just what happened to their missing children. And for at least some who do, the news usually ends what little hope they may have had of seeing their children alive again.

PARENTS of Jammu and Kashmir's "child terrorists" are still struggling to come to terms with events. Some, like Bilal Bhat's father Ghulam Mohiuddin Bhat, blame themselves. "I spoilt him," he says, pointing to the spanking new motorcycle he had bought for Bilal the day he left for Shopian. "I put him in charge of our furniture factory when he said that was what he wanted to do; I gave him an Ambassador car when he said he wanted to run a taxi business. Perhaps this is all a blessing in disguise, since it has made my son take life a little bit more seriously," he explained. According to Muzammil Wani, Aijaz Wani's brother, "Scolding Aijaz all the time just pushed him away from the family."

The BSF has decided not to press criminal charges against the Channapora children, but there are others who face repeated court appearances and even possible prison terms. "Whether we went to become terrorists of our free will or not, people look on us with suspicion. Tomorrow, no one will want to give us jobs, in case we are actually linked with terrorist groups. No one will want to give us their daughters in marriage in case we end up in jail," said Ibrahim Labe.

Things are not very different in rural Kashmir. Dadampora resident Ghulam Mohiuddin Wani joined the Hizbul Mujahideen in 1992, and surrendered four years later. Ostracised by society, and unable to find a job, he has now left for Punjab to work as a labourer. "I'm afraid I'll end up the same way," says Bilal Ahmad, "there's nothing here for me anymore."

A decade ago, young people who joined the jehad had social respect and power of sorts. That - as young recruits to terrorist groups are discovering - is no longer the case. But there is no real answer to forced recruitment of the kind that has now become rampant across Jammu and Kashmir. Terrorist groups are desperate to increase the numbers of locally recruited cadre, both in order to undermine criticism that their operatives are mainly Pakistani and to renew their diminished influence within civil society in Jammu and Kashmir. This suggests that the problem is certain to grow in the months, and perhaps years to come. Children, easy to both indoctrinate and intimidate, are ideal recruits. Also, organisations like the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Toiba have the experience of the Taliban to look up to, built as it was from among very young people indoctrinated in seminaries.

It was in May 2000 that the first group of child recruits to the terrorist ranks were arrested in Jammu and Kashmir. Thirteen children from Doda and South Kashmir were arrested near the Bimbar Gali on the LoC in Poonch, and were then returned to their parents. Intelligence officials estimate that this year alone, over 500 children from the Kashmir Valley have been recruited, along with perhaps 100 others from Doda. Recruitment levels rose during the Ramzan ceasefire, when the withdrawal of security forces gave terrorist groups a free hand to intimidate civil society. The numbers have not fallen since. Some refer to the young people who joined terrorist groups in the early 1990s as Jammu and Kashmir's lost generation. Now, it appears, the violence is set to claim a second lost generation.