Independent Appeal: A child is reborn

Mohammed was a child soldier in Afghanistan. He saw his father shot dead, witnessed savage atrocities and was seen in a Taliban martyrdom video. Now this teenager has been given the chance of a normal life – and you, our readers, can help other boys robbed of their childhood

Kim Sengupta,Afghanistan
Thursday 24 December 2009 01:00

The celebrations are not quite the traditional kind that Christians associate with Christmas Eve, and for Mohammed Mir it is not so much a birth as a rebirth of innocence. But for him and others like him, it is a time of hope and peace after years of violence and despair.

Mohammed is one of the thousands of child soldiers who were recruited by Afghan militias during the conflict that has torn their country apart over the past three decades. Many are still fighting now, but for the Taliban. Some of those taken from Islamic religious schools, or madrassas, are being used as suicide bombers and gunmen.

A video of boys marching in camouflage uniform and chanting slogans of martyrdom was issued recently by the Afghan Taliban's leadership in Pakistan, the Quetta Shura, commanded by the one-eyed Mullah Omar. Along with the film footage was a eulogy to Hafidh Muhmmad Zarif, a 14-year-old Taliban fighter who killed an American soldier. Another boy, Omar Khadr, was 15 when he allegedly murdered a US serviceman and now faces a military tribunal. Last year in a Kabul prison, I met Shakirullah Yasin Ali, a boy of 14 who was arrested while plotting to drive a car packed with explosives into a Nato convoy. All these teenagers were robbed of their childhoods, but Mohammed Mir is no longer one of them.

A key plank of Nato's new strategy in the Afghan conflict is to try to reintegrate militiamen, particularly the young and those deemed not to be too steeped in Islamist indoctrination – into mainstream society. Mohammed Mir is one beneficiaries of a scheme run by the British development agency ActionAid, one of the three charities being supported by this year's Christmas Appeal in The Independent. It aims to enable them to return to their villages and hold down jobs.

"I cannot tell you what it was like to be a child when I was growing up because I never had that experience", says Mohammed, 19. "I was nine years old when I was told I must join and defend our area against the enemy. No one said to me I had a choice to refuse, my father was already in the [militia]. My mother cried with the fighters who had come to collect me, but they said I must go, that it was my duty."

Mohammed went off to fight, first with the Uzbek militia run by General Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the most controversial and violent warlords in Afghanistan's long years of strife. But, as the General repeatedly changed sides in the civil war, Mohammad next found himself fighting alongside the Taliban – only then to join the anti- Taliban Northern Alliance as the warlord switched allegiance.

"I saw some bad things. I saw men with their arms and legs blown away, houses burnt, people running away, lots of deaths," Mohammed recalls.

During one temporary truce in the fighting, Mohammed saw another death – that of his father, Amiruddin. "He was killed in front of me," he remembers.

"A man opened fire with his Kalashnikov and then ran away. We never caught him. I remember sitting down next to my father's body."

The conflict created bitter divisions, even within close-knit families and clans. Alongside Mohammad in the ActionAid project are two of his friends, Jamudeen and Bahadullah, who also have harrowing tales to tell.

Jamudeen's 44-year-old father was killed by his brother-in-law. "It was political and also personal," says Jamudeen. "I was 14 years old at the time. I wanted to get revenge and kill him as well. But then the elders intervened. They said I should leave this man's punishment to Allah. I would like to see him in court one day, but I do not know if that will be possible."

Jamudeen, now 18, was recruited by the mujahedin at the age of eight. At first his job was to carry loads and run errands, but after about six months he was given a gun and told to fight. "It was frightening when there was a lot of shooting. I missed my family and I missed my friends," he says.

His childhood, too, was stolen from him. "When all this was going on I saw some young children, brothers and sisters, who were crying because their parents had gone," he recalls.

"When I said I was worried about them, one of the other warriors laughed and said not to worry – I was the same age as them and they should be tough, too."

Bahadullah was only six when the tragedy of war became personal and his father Hassan, 29, was killed in action. "He was killed in the frontline, they brought his body back to our home," says Bahadullah, 17. "Then, maybe three years later, the fighters returned and said I had to join."

ActionAid's project gives boys like these a chance to start their lives anew. Its support has enabled them to return to school, while giving them livestock to start up as farmers.

"I have learned to read and I have got to eighth grade at school," says Mohammed Mir. "I am now doing things I could not do when I was growing up. I want to be a teacher because I think education will make people talk to each other rather than fight, and other children will not end up fighting."

But while Mohammed's dream is for peace and goodwill to return to his country, he knows the days of violence are not yet over. The region where he lives, in the north of the country, has been relatively peaceful since the Taliban were overthrown.

Recently, however, it has witnessed increasing infiltration by insurgents from Uzbekistan and Chechnya who have links to al-Qa'ida, and by fighters loyal to the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former protégé of the CIA. Attacks have risen dramatically in the past year. As for General Dostum, the US President Barack Obama has demanded that he should be investigated for alleged war crimes over the killings of thousands of prisoners.

The General, however, remains a free man and a valued ally of the Afghan President Hamid Karzai, for whom he delivered the ethnic block vote in the recent fraud-ridden elections.

Mohammed and his friends know the path ahead is strewn with difficulties. Their previous lives, they sense, are not that far behind them. They live with the continuing fear that they may be called back to the frontline once again. And yet they persist with their inspiring optimism about the future of their country.

"None of us wants to go back to the way things were," adds Jamudeen. "If the Taliban keep getting stronger here, if our communities suffer, what choice would we have? We have been taught to fight. But, believe me, we really hope that doesn't happen."

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