Newsweek just published an incredible story about teenage Afghan refugees in Pakistan being recruited to join seemingly immortal terrorist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s fighters across the border. According to the article, goading poor adolescents to run off to Afghanistan for weapons training is just another part of the curriculum at the almost comically over-the-top boy’s high school/militant recruiting center in the Shamshatoo refugee camp.
Asking to be called Wahid Khan, the boy fondly recalls the early-morning assemblies where teachers praised the glories of jihad and recounted Afghanistan’s long history of resistance to foreign occupiers. And he remembers the messages scrawled on the blackboards of the upper-grade classrooms: “To Join the Jihad, the Order of Almighty Allah, Call This Number” and “Those Who Want to Repay Their Debt to God, Take This Number.”
Wahid, who ran away to an insurgent training camp “deep in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan” the summer after he completed 10th grade, is pissed that his dad withdrew him from the Shamshatoo school and placed him in a school where his classmates don’t daydream about bombings.
The young Afghan hates his new school in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. “My classmates only talk about girls and movies,” he complains.
Unfortunately, it’s probably safe to say Shamshatoo made a lasting impression on Wahid.
As soon as this school year ends, he’s planning to head back to Afghanistan to complete his training for the war against the Americans. “My parents only live to survive,” the boy says. “My aim is to live honorably in the eyes of God—and that means jihad.”
The notorious refugee camp itself is a kind of Hezb-i-Islami ministate, complete with anti-everything-fun laws and its own secret police.
Over the past three decades the camp has become a small city of more than 64,000 inhabitants, with mosques, madrassas, high schools, a university, a hospital, and even two local newspapers—both trumpeting Hekmatyar’s Islamist line. Unlike many of his Taliban partners in jihad, he supports education for girls. But he nevertheless requires women in the camp to wear burqas, and they’re forbidden to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative. Playing music in public—even the ringtone on a mobile phone—is banned, as are satellite dishes. And no one is safe from the camp’s informers and enforcers. “You can’t say anything against Hekmatyar or this destructive game in Afghanistan,” says one former resident. “His men are everywhere.” The man moved his family to Peshawar two years ago, fearing that if they stayed in Shamshatoo his two sons would be recruited. “I was worried they’d be brainwashed and disappear,” he says.
When Shamshatoo boys do disappear, they come back spoiling for a fight, preferably with foreigners, but they’ll settle for relatives and household appliances if that doesn’t work out.
An Afghan engineer with a USAID project in Kabul recently had to save his 15-year-old nephew from Shamshatoo. The boy had enrolled at a madrassa in the camp, and his behavior had changed radically. He ranted to his parents about Afghan women being molested by infidels. He trashed the family’s television set, saying it was haram—forbidden—and castigated his mother and sisters for having the nerve to laugh while people in Afghanistan were suffering. “He was completely brainwashed,” the engineer says. “The mullahs were looking for the opportunity to take him to Afghanistan to fight.”
In desperation the family finally sent him to live with his uncle in Kabul. The boy still refuses to talk about his time in the madrassa, the engineer says, but lately he has become a new kid, learning quickly, watching Afghan television (mainly soap operas), and even laughing aloud at times. “He’s very young, so it’s easier for him to change,” the engineer says. “I think he’s happier here than in Shamshatoo.”
Over at Registan, Josh Foust writes:
No, what bugs the hell out of me here is that training camp, which is either really near the busiest border crossing in the region or close enough to where a Peshawari can go, train for a month, and come back in a reasonably short period of time. That really narrows down where it could be (seriously), and I’m a bit confused as to why it’s allowed to either continue operating, or, if so, why there seems to be so little movement against it.
Any of you have other thoughts?
One of the most disturbing aspects of this story is contrast between the extremism of the teenage boys and the relative moderation of their parents and extended families. Much is made of how controlling Afghan families can be, but the Shamshatoo crisis (and yeah, I’d call hundreds of minors running off to war a crisis) underscores how far the conflict has eroded traditional social norms in all the wrong ways.