It is possible to take back child soldiers and suicide bombers on the Taliban’s payroll after a thorough reformation programme, claims a leading psychologist who has worked on one such project with the Pakistan Army.
“These children were made to believe that anyone who did not wear the shalwar kameez was a non believer,” explained Dr Feriha Peracha. As the director of Sabaoon Project, she worked with 12 to 18 year olds who were recruited in Swat and Malakand by militants loyal to the terrorist Mullah Fazlullah. More recently, she has been working with children who were recruited by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan.
On Tuesday she presented her exhaustive case study on the topic of terrorism, demographics and psycho-social variables in adolescents on the second day of the 15th National Health Sciences Research Symposium held at the Aga Khan University.
“For [these children] Mullah Fazlullah was a role model. Islamabad was another country. They were told that every other place in the country apart from Swat had now been taken over by infidels.”
According to Peracha’s research, conducted on 162 children who were captured by the Pakistan Army, some in the process of carrying out suicide bombings, the doctor said her cross examinations revealed that the underlying motivation to join the militants was “poverty and a lack of opportunities”. “It has nothing to do with religion at all,” she said.
In fact, most children couldn’t even tell what the Kalima meant in their own language. “Even the families of these children were not particularly religious,” she said. “In reality, it was their lack of familiarity with the Holy Quran that had left them vulnerable [to the arguments of the Taliban].”
She found that 58 per cent of the children were found to be abducted by terrorists, while 41 per cent joined the cause voluntarily. For those who joined of their own volition, the doctor said it had more to do with prospects of better food and the dream of enjoying a better life in the Hereafter.
Just like the saying ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’, Dr Peracha said she had a new saying: A meal a day, keeps the terrorists away.
She observed that the more intelligent ones were used as informants and spies, while it was the slightly slower learners who were encouraged to carry out suicide bombings. A video interview of one such suicide bomber who was captured by the army when he was just 14 years was also shown to the audience.
Dr Peracha helped these children return to the fold of Pakistani society through a sustained programme of discussions and an opportunity to get a better education. Sport emerged as a crucial point for the children in their reform programme. “If we didn’t allow a child to play football for 15 minutes, he would be most upset, just like other children,” she said.
At least eight of Dr Peracha’s children are now enrolled in graduate studies programmes and 20 others are now enrolling in higher school.
Also in the session, AKU professor of psychiatry, Dr Murad Musa, talked about suicides in Pakistan and recalled the incident involving a young man who recently set himself on fire in front of parliament. “The conservative estimate for suicides in Pakistan is between 6,000 and 8,000 per year, while attempted suicide cases vary between 60,000 and 80,000 cases,” he said.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 2nd, 2011.