In Pakistan, reform school attempts to offer child fighters chance at a new life

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 28, 2010

PIRANO, PAKISTAN -- In mountains not far from this village, Pakistani authorities say, terrorists are preparing their newest generation of spies, shooters and suicide bombers. In the village, under razor wire and the watch of soldiers, Pakistan is trying to give some of the recruits back their childhoods.

At a new school tucked near the fragile peace of the Swat Valley, peach-fuzzed veterans of Taliban camps wear burgundy sweaters to math classes, counseling sessions and religion lessons, where they hear that Islam favors democracy over suicide. Teachers work in fear of militant attacks and of hardened students -- but also in hopes of de-radicalizing the gangly boys who make up a growing part of Pakistan's insurgency.

Analysts say there is an urgent need. Pakistan is home to the toxic mix of a significant youth population, few job prospects and a rising Islamist insurgency. Military officials say most suicide bombings are now carried out by males younger than 20. The 86 adolescents at this army-sponsored school are a drop in that ocean, a fact that its director, neuropsychologist Feriha Peracha, said she tries not to dwell on.

"It can have a ripple effect," Peracha said, as her students, ages 12 to 18, quietly took exams. "We are a time bomb if we don't do this."

Though child soldiers have toted guns in conflicts worldwide, international experts say their indoctrination and reform has been poorly researched. Organizers of this boarding school -- the first of its kind in Pakistan -- say it is providing a valuable, if small, window into the backgrounds of Pakistan's young fighters and the triggers that vault them into the hands of militants.

All of the students came to the school after being captured by the army, or were brought here by their families. Some had been trained by insurgent groups as slaves or thieves, some as bombers.

One teen watched children vanish from his camp until a commander directed him, too, to strap on a suicide vest, then relented when he refused. Another named Saddam Hussain -- a common name in a region where people admire the former Iraqi leader -- was surrendered by his own relatives to the militants, who had controlled Swat until last summer.

"Three people in our area refused to send their family members, and they were killed," Saddam's uncle told Peracha during a recent meeting that she allowed a reporter to observe. Insurgents taught his nephew to shoot and "promised him heaven, vehicles, guns and authority."

Saddam, a gawky 16-year-old who, like many of the students, was angry and aggressive when the school was launched last fall, cracked his knuckles.

"When will we be playing football and cricket?" he quietly asked Peracha.

The patterns among the boys have been revealing, Peracha said. Few attended the Islamic schools, or madrassas, often blamed for fueling radicalism in Pakistan. Though all trained in the Swat Valley, they pledged allegiance to different insurgent leaders, indicating the mixing of Pakistan's many militant groups.

More significantly, she and other teachers said, most of the boys are middle children who have been lost in the shuffle of large, poor families with absent fathers. Few had much formal schooling, many are aggressive, and most score poorly on educational aptitude tests.

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