The 16-year-old boy, too fearful to have his name printed, moved from Mingora to Nowshera this February. His father was a shopkeeper in Swat and is now working as a peon at a factory in Nowshera. They are indistinguishable from the many thousands who fled the valley, both when it was being overrun by militants and later when the army recaptured it following Operation Rah-e-Rast in 2009.
But they harbour a secret that they have shared only with a few close friends and their employer. That the teenage son was captured by militants and was being trained in suicide bombing before he was rescued by the army.
The boy narrates the story of how he was recruited by militants. His school had been closed for many months in 2008 because of the security situation and so he continued his education at a local mosque in Mingora.
He recalled, “The teacher at the mosque took us on outings to the mountains where men would give us guns to fire.” It was only on his fifth or sixth trip to the area – which his father believes to be Chuprial – that the ideological indoctrination began. “The men there would tell us that martyrdom was a reward from Allah. But we were more excited about the guns. They would also tell us not to talk to our families about this and that we should even turn against our families if they did not approve.”
After a couple of months of such training, when such visits had become routine, the boy was told that his parents had given him permission to live permanently at the camp. He says there were about two dozen boys like him there. And their numbers constantly being depleted and replenished.
The boy’s father says his son had become more subdued in the months leading up to his disappearance and that he suspected the Taliban were behind his kidnapping. “But what could I do? There was no police to go to.”
After only a few months in the training camp, the son was rescued during the army operation. But he was not immediately reunited with his family. First, he had to spend over six months with the army, to ensure that he was no longer a threat.
Lieutenant Colonel Arif Mehmood, public relations officer of the ISPR, is not sure how many children were rescued from the militants but Brigadier Tahir Hamid, the commanding officer of the Swat operation, estimated that as many as 1200 to 1500 were recruited by the Taliban.
Mehmood describes the rehabilitation programme the army has in place for children recruited to be suicide bombers, some of whom, he says, were as young as seven years old.
“We have psychologists who talked to them. We also gave them social training, computer education and religious instruction.” Some of the boys, he says, were not found in Taliban camps, rather they were turned in by parents who were worried that their boys had become radicalised.
Mehmood says that the children’s reintroduction to society is gradual. “After a while, we allow them to stay with their parents on weekends and even when they are released, we make sure that local notables keep checking on them.”
While the boy in Nowshera confirms that he was getting a good education from the army, and never felt like he was being imprisoned the way he did with the Taliban, he wasn’t allowed to see his parents for months. His father says that it took him at least six months of constantly badgering local authorities before they would even confirm that the army had this son.
When he was finally released into the custody of his parents in January, the entire family packed their bags and moved to Nowshera. Here, haunted by the past and fearful of the future, they try to erase the memory of their three-year ordeal. Even though Swat is slowly inching towards normalcy, the boy says, “I never want to go back there.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 6th, 2011.