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Afghanistan’s Other War

The wounded I have treated here have a determination that I have never seen before,” a Moslem doctor said, describing Afghan patients who have been wounded by Soviet bombs, mines, or artillery. “I have never met a wounded or amputated man who is defeated, sad, or sorry, I have never heard a woman cry, a woman shouting, a crowd of people mourning…. I come from a Moslem country that mourns its dead for forty days. I have never seen anything like this.”

The doctor, an Egyptian orthopedic surgeon named Mahmoud Booz, runs a voluntary hospital for Afghan war-wounded in Peshawar, in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan where several million Afghans have temporarily fled. He is not alone in his admiration of their spirit, which he considers more Afghan than Moslem. Like others who know the Afghans, he believes that the jihad, the holy war that they have been waging for seven years against the Soviets, is as much a struggle for Afghanistan’s freedom and integrity as it is a fight for Islam. He is convinced that the Afghans will be victorious “despite the superior technology in the hands of the Russians.” And he believes that the Soviets will also fail in the “other battle” that is being waged in Afghanistan—the battle to win over the Afghan children.

Amid the rubble of Afghanistan’s devastated villages and cities in chaos, a new generation of Afghans, unlike any other, is coming of age. Both the Soviets and the Afghan resistance—known as mujahedin—seek to influence this generation. The Afghan children, already battered by war, are being treated as the prize in a contest of ideologies in which the Soviets may have met their match.

Those Afghan children who live in cities under Soviet control are being subjected to a Soviet-style education aimed at creating a new, communist Afghan. Thousands, including children orphaned by the war, are being sent to the Soviet Union for long-term indoctrination. Still others are being trained as spies and assassins. But most of Afghanistan is not under Soviet control. Children living in regions where the resistance forces are fighting are growing up imbued with the same fierce spirit that drives the mujahedin. And among the five milion refugees who have been forced over the borders (one third of Afghanistan’s prewar population), about 48 percent are children, many of whom are being trained by the resistance to take up the fight to free Afghanistan from the “Russian infidels.”

The Russians, known for their staying power, will probably be in Afghanistan for a long time. They intend to win both militarily and ideologically, to create an Afghanistan run by leaders and bureaucrats loyal to their Soviet sponsors. The communist education of the young, intrinsic to Soviet strategy elsewhere, has taken on added importance in the confrontation with the Afghans. “They saw that they couldn’t conquer us,” a resistance commander told me, “and they realized that there is no way to change the people. That’s when they decided to take the children, because they think that they have ‘empty brains.”’

The Afghan resistance, however, is prepared for a fight to the finish. Both within the country and outside its borders, Afghans are raising their children in the spirit of jihad, arming them spiritually and emotionally for the drawn-out battle that lies ahead. It is with this spirit that the Soviets must contend, both on the battlefield and in their fight for the allegiance of the Afghan children.

The Soviets are waging a cruel war in Afghanistan, a war intended to terrorize civilians, to force them to flee or to cease supporting the resistance. Virtually every known crime of war is taking place there, and on a scale so vast it defies imagination. Children are among the most victimized. They are bombed in their schools, locked in their homes and burned alive, shot while fleeing to caves in the mountains or en route to refuge in Pakistan. They are spied upon and urged to inform against their families and friends. They have lost hands and eyes by picking up “toys” that have exploded in their faces.

The war has produced thousands of orphans, many of whom have seen their parents die. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan children have become refugees within their own country, driven from their homes and villages, and herded into cities where they live confused and impoverished lives. Millions more have made the arduous journey to Pakistan, where they live without purpose in squalid refugee camps. Some of the many children I interviewed during a recent visit seemed excessively fearful, shrinking away at the sight of a camera, for example, apparently suspecting it might be a gun. Others were dispirited or despondent. A refugee woman living in a make-shift tent said that her youngest child “is not normal.” “She cries a lot, she is always sick, since the bombing.” Asked how her children spend their days, she replied: “They just sit with me. Like in a jail. We just sit.”

Virtually all of Afghanistan’s young people, those within the country and those beyond the border, are victims of their experience of a vicious, prolonged war. They present a challenge to which both the Soviets and the Afghan resistance have risen, each side eager to win them to its cause.

The Soviets are at a disadvantage. They seek to impose a communist ideology that has gone bankrupt in their own country and is foreign to Afghan thinking, an ideology that most Afghans consider atheistic, evil, and decadent. Moreover, since only a small part of the country is under Soviet control, they can hope to influence only the children living in Kabul and a few other cities. But the Soviets have had long experience in subduing ethnic resistance in other countries, most pertinently in their own Central Asian republics. They believe that they are bringing progress and enlightenment to a poor and backward nation, and they have no scruples about the methods that they use.

They began, soon after the 1979 takeover, by thoroughly overhauling the Afghan school system, to make it conform to the practice of Soviet schools both in structure and in what is taught. Soviet advisers, Soviet teachers, and Soviet-published textbooks were brought in, and socialism and dialectical materialism were added to a newly standardized curriculum. Russian replaced English as the required foreign language, and Afghanistan’s history was rewritten as a continuing struggle against imperialism, aided by an enduring friendship with the Soviet Union. Teachers who resisted or had independent views were fired; many were imprisoned or executed, others fled the country. Student membership in Party organizations became necessary for scholastic success, and Party loyalty required students to inform upon their teachers and each other.

Acknowledging the strong hold of Islam on the Afghan people, the Soviets moved cautiously in religious matters. Some Islamic teaching was allowed to continue in the schools, carefully monitored to prevent any criticism of the government. Still, about half of the eligible students are not enrolled in schools. Some 90 percent of the Afghan population is illiterate, and the Soviets soon learned that it is senseless to distribute propaganda to a population that does not read. A new approach was necessary.

In late 1984 the Afghan regime launched a program under which thousands of very young children—six to nine years old, or even younger—are sent to the USSR each year for ten years or more of study. (According to some reports, the Afghan government is committed to sending a minimum of 2,000 children a year.) The purpose of the program is evident: to remove children from the influences of family and tradition, to reach them at an impressionable age, to show them a “better life” in the USSR, and—ultimately—to offer them the opportunity to lead Afghanistan into a communist future. Some of the youngsters sent to the USSR are the children of Afghan Communist party members, sent with their parents’ blessings. Others, however, are sent from their schools without their families’ consent, and sometimes without even their knowledge. Refugees from Kabul report that hundreds of children have been taken from their homes by agents of the secret police or seized on the streets. Parents have been arrested for refusing to let their children go.

My brother’s daughter is in that program,” an Afghan refugee told me. “She was seven years old, in school. One day she didn’t come home. Each day he went to the school and they said: ‘Come tomorrow.’ After a week he finds out that she was sent to the Soviet Union…. That was two years ago. She’s still there. Don’t mention his name, please, or he will go to jail.”

Almost nothing is known about what happens to these children when they arrive in the Soviet Union. Some Afghans speculate that the term of study will be shortened because of strong resistance from the children’s families. There have been reports of anguished farewells at Kabul Airport and of children so homesick that they had to be sent home.

War orphans who have no close relatives are considered good candidates for long-term indoctrination in the USSR. The Afghan government and its Soviet advisers have gathered them in institutions known as Fatherland Training Centers, which have been described as “warehouses for shipment to Russia.” Children from fatherless, impoverished, or otherwise troubled families have also been taken to the training centers, and many of them end up in the USSR as well. Professor Rasul Amin, formerly of Kabul University, says that the training centers are run jointly by the Soviet KGB and the Afghan secret police, and staffed mainly by Soviet teachers: “The majority of these orphan students are sent to the Soviet Union, because they don’t have any relatives. The Soviets and the Khad [Afghan secret police] think they will be the hard core of communism in the future. Other children might cry for their mothers and fathers, but these children have no one to cry for.”

When older children are sent to the USSR to attend school for short periods the Soviet authorities take account of their religious upbringing. They are usually sent to Soviet Central Asia, where they are taught by teachers who know their language and customs. They are told that there are good Moslems and bad Moslems, and that the mujahedin are bad because they are anti-Soviet. The purpose of the short-term trips appears to be mainly propaganda. “The boys who went to Russia said Russia is a nice place,” a teen-ager told me. “The Russians have come here to help us, they said. When you go to Russia you get education…and money.”

With orphans, however, the approach is direct. “The curriculum…is different,” according to Professor Amin, “based completely on the communist way of teaching. Children in other schools might take the books home to their parents, but these children don’t have any parents.”

Across the border, in Pakistan, there are other institutions for Afghan war orphans run by Afghan refugees aligned with the resistance. I visited one of the orphanages, speaking to the children while the director stood by. Ahmad Shah, a seven-year-old who had arrived in Pakistan two years before, started by saying what was heartbreakingly evident: “I was very small when my father died.” He said his father was the “Great Commander of Maidan.” What does he remember? “Only jihad. I have forgotten everything else.” And what will he do when he finishes school? “I will line up all the mujahedin and I will lead them to avenge the death of my father. We will attack the Russians and kill all of them.” The adults in the room smiled appreciatively at his answer. Other children filed in, one by one. Each gave another version of the same tale. Asked about their plans for the future, the answer was invariably “jihad.” One of the grimmest consequences of the Soviet invasion is to have produced a generation of children who look forward to war.

An orphan named Nuryalay, now fifteen, had been sent to the Soviet Union at the age of eleven and trained to be a spy. “I was eager to go,” he said. “It was a very luxurious life. We had dancing and films on alternate nights. After a month and a half, I was sent back to Kabul and told to spy on the mujahedin.” Nuryalay was captured and held in a mujahedin camp for a year before being sent to the orphanage in Pakistan. He is now being kept under close surveillance. He said his goal, like that of the others, is “to fight jihad.”

The Russians are imposing their ideology,” the orphanage director told me. “But we have our own. We have plans to see that our ideology is not defeated. We have 98 percent of the Afghan people with us, and we are ready to sacrifice their bodies to this cause. We will always fight for our ideology. We have a right to live as we want.”

At a refugee camp near the border, I ask five small boys, sons of a mujahed who was “martyred” in the fighting, to sit together to have their photograph taken. Someone tells the photographer to wait while the men in the compound give their guns to the children, who then strike a militant pose. “This is the generation that will fight and make Afghanistan free,” one of the men proclaims proudly.

When I visited a school for Afghan boys in Peshawar, the principal led me and some other guests to a corner classroom. There was a child he wanted to show off. Sakhidad, about nine years old, jumped up on command and began to lead the others in what sounded like rallying cries and slogans. The response was deafening and continued until they were told to stop. “They are telling Karmal: You destroyed our country. You are a thief. Your followers are thieves. Long live Islam.”

We never just teach them that two plus two makes four,” a teacher boasts. “We say that two dead Russians plus two dead Russians make four dead Russians, killed by the mujahedin.”

Atiqullah, ten years old, recently entered the school. He describes how his grandmother and aunt were stabbed in their homes with bayonets and then shot: “We were standing right there. I was shouting and crying. He said something to us in Russian. We didn’t understand. They pointed their rifles at us to keep us quiet.” Atiqullah misses his village in Laghman Province, but he says he will go back only if it is liberated. “Do not worry,” the principal assures him. “Afghanistan will be liberated.” It seemed to be what these children wanted to hear.

Of three captured spies who are brought in to be interviewed, two are children. They claim to be fourteen years old, but look much younger. As minors, they have immunity under Moslem law. This is a secret meeting, for reasons that soon become obvious. The boys have been captured spying on resistance fighters at a mujahedin base in Pakistan. They are prisoners, held by the mujahedin in a concealed place in Pakistan. Holding such spies is not a procedure that the Pakistan authorities would encourage or condone.

Boys like this are scattered all over Afghanistan. Hundreds have been sent to Pakistan as well. Some are sent to the Soviet Union to be trained as spies and killers; others are recruited in Kabul and promised trips to the USSR after completing a successful mission.

Masud had been captured fifteen days before our interview. He is handsome, charming, with an open, infectious smile. His family is in Kabul: “They do not know about my coming here, but the school knows.” Masud was recruited by the Party secretary in his school, a man of about thirty: “I was sent to Pakistan to search for the houses of resistance commanders. I was supposed to go back and lead others to them. I was given a little money—five hundred afghanis—and told I would get more here. But I was caught after three days.”

Masud speaks easily, engagingly, but as I listened to him and then read over his answers to questions, his confusion and desire to please became increasingly apparent.

I was deceived. I was told that when I came back I would be sent to the USSR to study spying.

Yes, I wanted to be a spy. We were told it was a very good job. The salary was high.

No, now I understand that it is not a good job. Because I could not do it. I want to study here in Pakistan. I want to study Islamic studies. I will not tell my parents that I am here.

Yes, I will write them a letter.

Yes, I am happy here.

No, I do not have any friends.

Yes, I will make friends.

No, I do not need anything.”

Sayed Asar has been a captive for three months. His fear was painful to see: his hands were shaking and there was a noticeable tremor in his neck. He is fatherless, a street child from Kabul who was recruited by a neighbor who worked for the secret police and sent to spy, first in Kabul and then in Peshawar. He was captured by mujahedin the very night he arrived in Peshawar; he quickly aroused suspicion, one of the mujahedin told me, because he was obviously nervous and conspicuous in his Kabuli clothes. “Yes, I wanted to go to Russia, but now I don’t want to. I have become a Moslem.”

The boys are being “rehabilitated” by their mujahedin captors, who say it will take a year to undo their training. The resistance fighter in whose custody the boys are kept (I shall call him Mohammad) seemed a kindly man, but a visitor can rely only on such impressions and has no way of knowing what actually takes place in the secret camp. He talked of the need for “reformation.” “They are Moslems,” he explained. “It is our duty to bring them back to Islam.”

Mohammad said he has reeducated more than sixty-five boys in a three-year period. He knows of 150 or so boys like this in the Peshawar area, held captive in secret institutions financed by the resistance parties. He is optimistic: “About 95 percent of them can be rehabilitated. They go back to Kabul for us.” Do they go as spies? “Yes, of course.” Mohammad tried to justify this practice: “If we don’t have spies in Kabul, we would perish. We must know their operations. We use young boys and older boys. We use everyone.”

I ask about the third spy, twenty-two years old, who also told me of his new devotion to Islam. “He is a man,” Mohammad said. “He came to Pakistan voluntarily. He was carrying poison, a pistol, explosive materials. He has confessed to everything. He will be sent back to the front where he will be tried and sentenced. Probably to death.”

Abdul Haq, another resistance commander, had also captured a number of child spies. He was less optimistic about their prospects for rehabilitation. “This is the problem. We keep them. We try to teach them. It is not easy for us, you have to be a specialist. They can turn and kill you. There are guns there in the camp…. Mostly we get fed up. We send them back to the cities. We tell them: Do what you want to do.”

In 1985 some Western journalists filming covertly inside Afghanistan interviewed a nine-year-old, curiously named Cherokee, who was a hit-and-run assassin for the mujahedin. “There are many more like him,” they were told. Showing off for the camera, Cherokee demonstrated how he throws grenades at Russians in the bazaar or shoots them with his machine gun. He looks like any nine-year-old playing with toy weapons. Five days after he was filmed, Cherokee was captured by the Afghan Army.

Commander Haq said he does not approve of the mujahedin training young boys as spies and assassins. But “there are differences between us and the Soviets…. A kid every day sees guns and bombs. He grows up with such things. He sees Soviet jets come bombing, he sees Soviet tanks come killing. He’s an Afghan boy. He wants to protect his country.” “Of course,” Commander Haq continued, “we’d rather live in peace. We want our children to be engineers and doctors. But we don’t have tanks or helicopters. We have to use what we have. What you have in your hands, you use it to protect yourself.”

The Soviets are pursuing expansionist policies in Afghanistan, under the guise of bringing progress. But the progress they offer the Afghans—literacy, industrial development, a centralized economy, and equality of the sexes—is not what most Afghans want, especially when it is imposed on them by Soviet advisers. Most Afghans are set in their tribal ways, and want only to be left alone. Yet the war has thrust them into the twentieth century. Even if the Soviets were now to withdraw, Afghanistan will never be the same.

The Soviets, if successful in their indoctrination of the young, will at best produce a relatively small, elite cadre of Communist sympathizers. The Afghans, on the other hand, are preparing millions of young people for a fight to the finish in a struggle that seems destined to continue for many years. Caught in the midst of a grownups’ war, the young Afghans are under intense political pressure from one side or another, almost from birth. These children are being deprived of what seems to me the essential rights they should have. Among these are the right they to an education that prepares them to think independently and the right to decide for themselves what is best for their country.

Letters

The Making of the Taliban November 14, 1996

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