In the last decade, Pakistan has been infected by the virulence of the War on Terror, morphing its extreme poverty and lack of education (a dangerous combination under any circumstances) into conditions never before encountered by previous generations. The Pakistani Taliban and other militant extremist groups have recruited many young boys from madrasas, the informal Islamic educational system tied to the mosques and often bankrolled by Saudi Wahabi money, to fight their distorted idea of jihad against the Pakistani army and Western troops in Afghanistan. They have blown up dozens of girls’ schools, depriving many of their education, and forcing them into seclusion, illiteracy, and despair.
To be a child in Pakistan can, more often than not, be a dangerous business, whether she lives in the heart of the conflict zone in the tribal areas, labours in the rural areas in an economic downturn brought about by the cost of fighting the war on terror, or resides in one of Pakistan’s cities, brought to a halt by unexpected terrorist attacks and continual ethnic strife.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a documentary maker whose films include Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, firmly attributes the spread of extremist attitudes in Pakistani children to the madrasas. No government or educational authority monitors the curriculum, and uneducated clerics are free to instill hardline attitudes in the students, particularly boys from low-income backgrounds. ‘Children trained by the Taliban are basically brainwashed – taught in complete isolation from the outside world in order for them to serve as live ammunition for their war against the ‘infidels,’’ she explains.
Poor families are bribed to send their children to the madrasas, as Taliban exploit their vulnerable targets’ deprivation. From there, it can be a quick journey to an extremist training camp, often one made under duress. A five-point method of indoctrination that endeavors to erase everything that the children know and replace it with the Taliban’s own version of reality.
First comes separation from parents and a promise of food and shelter if the children leave their family homes to join the madrasas. This separation is then followed by a complete information blackout: no television, radio, newspapers allowed. Instead, children memorize the Quran in Arabic, understanding nothing but what they are told it says by their teachers, the interpretations distorted to suit the extremists’ own needs and purposes. No child is allowed to challenge a teacher’s opinion, and without exposure to any other outside source of information, such challenge is rendered impossible. The children are urged to focus on the next world and the ‘reward’ guaranteed them by fighting this ‘holy’ war.
The end result is a child who feels he has no choice but to sacrifice himself for the greater cause of the war against the Western occupiers of Afghanistan and the Pakistan Army. At the hands of their trainers, themselves veterans of jihads in Afghanistan under Soviet rule and Kashmir under Indian occupation, these Pakistani children become the walking dead, living in ‘hope for an afterlife that is more glorious than the one they live in’. They are the ghost children of Pakistan.
The events of 9/11 and the War on Terror may hold some distance for many of Karachi’s children, but the events that happen at home present a more immediate threat, invoking greater fear. Political parties that represent ethnic groups such as the Pashtuns, Sindhis, and Urdu-speaking Mohajirs regularly show their animosity towards one another in the form of target killings and violent strikes, forcing markets, schools and public transportation to close. ‘Whatever was being felt post 9/11 has been compounded by the current events of local terror and the decline of personal security within the city over the last two to three years,’ says Karachi based psychologist Ishma Alvi.
In a way that is often comparable to the fates of many of their children, some Pakistani parents succumb to anxiety and depression due to a lack of control and the perception that they cannot protect their children from the events around them. ‘The helplessness is acted out by parents trying to maintain control over what they are able to, such as setting curfews and providing cell phones to younger and younger children,’ says Alvi. These are the actions of the affluent, who can afford to buy their children Blackberries and hire bodyguards to accompany them to school. The middle class, the working class, and the economic underclass are unable to resort to such ‘safeguards’; they turn to God and prayer to protect their children from the bloodshed of the last ten years.
Background and class are often ineffective barriers to the effects of the War on Terror on the psyches of Pakistani children. Ammara Nasir, a schoolteacher at a private school in Karachi, recalls asking her five-year old students where they had gone for their summer vacations. Uzair responded that he and his family had gone to the United States. His classmates shouted out, ‘Wow, you got the visa! Nobody gets the American visa because they think we’re bad people.’ A Punjabi middle class seven year old child in Nabiha Meher Shaikh’s schoolroom in Lahore expressed happiness that Americans were being killed: ‘My father says it’s a very good thing, because they are killing Muslims.’ Ishma Alvi relates the story of administering an ability test to a child from Lyari, a violence-riddled working class area of Karachi, where heroin use is rampant and political groups no better than street gangs fight violent gun battles over territory and drug profits. ‘I asked him what the four seasons of the year were’, she says, ‘and he replied, ‘sardi, garmi, hangama, hartal’’. (Winter, summer, riots, strikes.)
As long as Pakistan remains on the high wire, barely maintaining its balance as domestic and international violence continues to pull it towards the ground, the physical, mental, and emotional damage that has been inflicted upon the children of Pakistan over the last ten years will not be easily undone. Can Pakistanis even imagine a time when Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta and Islamabad will be called cities of security again, when the children of the tribal belt and the Swat Valley will be able to go to school and live their lives without fear? For the sake of its children, Pakistan has no choice but to heal itself, so that its children can learn to replace the last two seasons of its year – winter, summer, riots and strikes – with autumn and finally, one day soon, spring.
Photograph by The Common Language Project