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Second chance for Pak child fighters

In mountains not far from this village, Pakistani authorities say, terrorists are preparing their newest generation of spies, shooters and suicide bombers.

world Updated: Mar 30, 2010 00:23 IST

In mountains not far from this village, Pakistani authorities say, terrorists are preparing their newest generation of spies, shooters and suicide bombers.

In the village, under razor wire and the watch of soldiers, Pakistan is trying to give some of the recruits back their childhoods.

At a new school tucked near the fragile peace of the Swat Valley, peach-fuzzed veterans of Taliban camps wear burgundy sweaters to math classes, counseling sessions and religion lessons, where they hear that Islam favours democracy over suicide. Teachers work in fear of militant attacks and of hardened students — but also in hopes of de-radicalising the gangly boys who make up a growing part of Pakistan’s insurgency.

Analysts say there is an urgent need. Pakistan is home to the toxic mix of a significant youth population, few job prospects and a rising Islamist insurgency. Military officials say most suicide bombings are now carried out by males younger than 20.

The 86 adolescents at this army-sponsored school are a drop in that ocean, a fact that its director, neuropsychologist Feriha Peracha, said she tries not to dwell on.

“It can have a ripple effect,” Peracha said, as her students, ages 12 to 18, quietly took exams. “We are a time bomb if we don’t do this.” Though child soldiers have toted guns in conflicts worldwide, international experts say their indoctrination and reform has been poorly researched.

Organisers of this boarding school — the first of its kind in Pakistan — say it is providing a valuable, if small, window into the backgrounds of young fighters and the triggers that vault them into the hands of militants.

All of the students came to the school after being captured by the army, or were brought here by their families. Some had been trained by insurgent groups as slaves or thieves, some as bombers.

One teen watched children vanish from his camp until a commander directed him, too, to strap on a suicide vest, then relented when he refused. Another named Saddam Hussain — a common name in a region where people admire the former Iraqi leader — was surrendered by his own relatives to the militants, who had controlled Swat until last summer.

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