The path to redemption…

By: Sana Saleem

The military offensive in South Waziristan has been deemed successful: speaking to the press, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced the completion of the South Waziristan offensive, and stated that the army will now focus on the Orakzai area. However, continued attacks on major cities and high security zones suggest that many fighters have fled the war zone and are being sheltered in cities across the country. The absence of a sound strategy to combat the infiltration of militants in otherwise peaceful areas is adding fuel to the fire.

As the army forges on, the chances of more fighters fleeing to cities becomes higher. It appears to be a vicious circle of collateral damage: every time the military vows success, it is met with deadlier and more well planned attacks in urban areas beyond the tribal belt that result in heavy civilian casualties. Meanwhile, the recruiting of militants continues everyday and more people are being won over with the ‘this is not our war’ line of reasoning.

Stuck in this quagmire of ideologies, we have forgotten some of the most crucial aspects of this war, including the fate of the internally displaced people, and in particular, the children.

In recent years the nature of armed conflict has changed greatly – we live in an era when war is seldom fought on well-defined battlefields. The nature of conflict is increasingly internal, characterised by carnage in which most victims are non-combatants, misogyny that leads women to become primary targets, and atrocities committed within a people. What is less known is that children are at the frontlines of new battles; their victimisation is not only violent, but also occurs in the form of recruitment.

More and more children are being abducted and subjected to the ravages of war. Indeed, abduction is the beginning of a process that uses fear, brutality, and psychological manipulation to achieve high levels of obedience, converting children into militants. As abductions spike, our government should resolve to take action to combat such incidents.

According to Global Report 2008:

There were reports that in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, following the October 2005 earthquake, some armed groups were involved in establishing schools, and anecdotal evidence that they were recruiting children. In July 2007 it was reported that a 14-year-old boy was returned to his family in Pakistan after being recruited from a madrassa in South Waziristan, trained and sent over the border to carry out a suicide attack on a provincial governor in Afghanistan. Another report indicated that in towns on the edge of Pakistan’s tribal belt children aged between 11 and 15 were being recruited from schools by Pro-Taleban insurgents and trained in Afghanistan as suicide bombers.

An IRIN report also suggests that an increasing number of child militants are being recruited by extremist outfits in Swat. More evidence suggests that the practice of recruiting child soldiers goes far beyond the Frontier province.

So far, no substantial action has been taken to rehabilitate these children. There have been severe reactions to calls for curtailing and controlling the activities of madrassahs. But the fact is, violence is weaved into the fabric of life when the young are radicalised, mobilized, and trained for war. The indoctrination of Pakistan’s youth increases the likelihood that violence and war will be our country’s future as well. Children who have been robbed of education and taught to kill often contribute to further militarisation, lawlessness, and violence.

A rehabilitation program for children is urgently needed, especially in a society like ours where children are reared in a system that amalgamates war, poverty, violence, hunger, and political instability. The most immediate form of rehabilitation should involve demobilising every under-age militant, reintegrating him with his family and community, and assisting him make the transition back into civilian life. The rehabilitation of children impacted by the war on terror is a serious matter with a psychological dimension. To truly work, society will have to rebuild the trust that this war has ripped apart. It will be quite an ordeal to win back Pakistan’s lost youth, but it’s not an impossible undertaking. We can learn a thing or two from countries such as Sri Lanka that are now on the path towards redemption and rehabilitation.

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