Afghanistan Chronicles, Part 3: Children of Terror

Afghanistan has been at war, with little respite, since the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979. Only the enemies and uniforms have changed. The physical devastation of the conflict is evident in the destroyed buildings and maimed populace. Not as readily discernible are the mental effects on the people, and, in particular, the children – a generation raised with war as their only frame of reference. The children of terror.

Thirty years ago, the Soviets supported the violence of direct attacks against the civilian population in retaliation for harboring the mujahedin warriors. This policy was coupled with the indiscriminate violence perpetrated by the massive amount of land mines sown or dropped throughout the countryside. As many as 10 million mines – the most of any country on earth – not only targeted combatants, but also killed and maimed thousands of villagers, including children. This combined carnage set in motion a massive flight of refugees into neighboring countries. From a prewar population of around 15 million, 2.5 million – mostly women and children­ – fled to the relative safety of the camps amassed along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Life in Afghanistan had not always been this way. Wakil Akbarzai, a former mujahedin commander with the moderate National Islamic Front of Afghanistan (NIFA) organization, remembers growing up in Afghanistan before the wars, and how being a child in Jalalabad during that time was much like being a child in other rural areas of the world. Young boys worked the fields with their fathers; young girls learned to sew or tended to infant siblings. And there was fun – reaching for the sky on swings hung from trees, floating along with the current of a local river, running around, playing tag. Their lives were filled with joy and laughter.

With the advent of war, however, Afghan children took on the stoicism normally attributed to their elders. A different way of dealing with pain and grief, this patient endurance was apparent in the faces of gravely injured youths as they lay quietly, without moans or cries, in camp field hospitals. The sight of these maimed children, many missing limbs or eyes, shocked the “Shadow of Afghanistan” crew when they first filmed in the country.

Still, during war, children are children. Despite horrific situations, they find a way to play, even when that play mirrors the life they now live. The roof and sides of a refugee tent in Pakistan that is now home becomes a canvas to draw art on – art that depicts the familiar images of war: tanks and gunships and butchered stick figures. A bombed-out building becomes a playground where young boys play war games with primitive toy guns crafted from bits of wood, falling into the mud to “die” with their eyes wide open – an all too common sight. An open space becomes a sports field where groups of boys struggle to knock each other down, all the while hopping on one leg as they hold their other leg behind them with one hand – a one-legged game delivering a simple message that even a maimed Afghan can resist the invaders.

Notwithstanding the resilience of young minds and hearts, children are impressionable. Orphans without the guidance and nurturing of family can be taught beliefs otherwise foreign to their nature. Beginning in the mid 1980s, over 2,000 fundamentalist madrassas were erected, using Saudi and US money, in Pakistan near refugee camps. It was in these religious schools that boys learned the Wahabbi version of Islam, Saudi Arabia's dominant faith, an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran that is alien to Afghan tradition. The militant clerics, who taught the young refugees, became the only family these lost boys knew.

Eventually these displaced children grow up. In war-torn places like Afghanistan, they grow up to fight for what they have been taught. For the length of the border, alongside the refugee camps, tough Pashtun warlords with their own Deobandi sect of Islam similar to the extreme beliefs of the Wahabs oversaw the operation of training camps set up by the mujahedin. With Saudi funding, US and Chinese weapons, and Pakistani military trainers assisted by the Interservices Intelligence Agency (ISI), Pakistan's secret police, and Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency, Afghan boys were taught the arts of war. Young novices learned to launch RPGs, shoot assault rifles and rig booby-traps, believing sincerely in their jihad.

The long-term effect on Afghanistan was that, by the time the Soviets finally left the country in 1989, these children had grown up into young adults whose only knowledge of the world was of war, and whose mandate was to set up an extremist Islamic state friendly to Pakistan. They returned to a country still strewn with land mines, where the rural infrastructure had been destroyed and the only jobs to be had were fighting a civil war for one power-hungry commander or another. These motherless boys, taught fundamentalist Islam and trained in the art of war, became the Taliban – warriors with extreme religious convictions, lead by the young, uneducated, but charismatic Mullah Omar, who had earned a reputation for bringing raping and murdering commanders to harsh justice. They came to power by promising the Afghan people peace based on Islamic principles. Once the country was secure, they vowed to step down from power. This is not what happened.

Fatima Gailani, the director of the Red Crescent (the Red Cross in Muslim countries) and daughter of NIFA leader Pir Gailani, commented that, with proper guidance, these young boys would have risked their lives to do anything for their country. Instead, they became the new oppressors of their own people and the supporters of terror.

Watch part one in this series: “The United States Bombs Afghanistan”

Watch part two in this series: A Search for Bin Laden in the Tora Bora Mountains

Watch part four in this series: Kill the Journalist, Kill the Story, Kill the Truth