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Sons of Taliban drug addict show Pakistan challenges

Motherless boys Sultan and Rahim lived in penury with their drug-addicted father before he abandoned them to join the Pakistani Taliban and an orphanage took pity on them. Joining the Taliban had seemed a good prospect for their vagabond father, shaking him out of his drug-addled torpor and providing him with an occupation. Read more...

world Updated: Jul 08, 2009 10:22 IST

Motherless boys Sultan and Rahim lived in penury with their drug-addicted father before he abandoned them to join the Pakistani Taliban and an orphanage took pity on them.

Joining the Taliban had seemed a good prospect for their vagabond father, shaking him out of his drug-addled torpor and providing him with an occupation.

But when Pakistan launched its latest offensive against the Islamist militia led by cleric Maulana Fazlullah, his sons’ lives fell apart.

They say the Pakistani army killed their older brother, another Taliban fighter, and torched the family home.

And when the army ordered the evacuation of the orphanage that had become their home, the boys joined the two million civilians displaced by war this summer.

The death of his brother has fuelled in Sultan a sympathy for Islamist hardliners, despite efforts by his benefactor at the orphanage, as part of the battle for hearts and minds here in northwest Pakistan, to teach him to hate the Taliban.

Sultan and Rahim -- not their real names -- sit on a bed in the school where they and their teachers have sought refuge from the searing heat in this city far from the cool mountains of Swat they were forced to flee.

At 15 years old, Sultan is already the size of a man and his 14-year-old brother -- who with his angular face and straight brown hair looks just like him -- is not far behind. Their eyes are sad and suspicious.

Sultan does the talking, calmly and politely narrating the tale of their miserable childhood.

“Our father is a drug addict. Our mother died when we were very young, I don’t know how,” he told AFP.

Teachers at the orphange said the boys’ father succumbed to heroin peddled on the streets of Mingora, the main town in Swat, and that he begged for money to pay for his addiction.

Their big brother, four years older than Sultan, looked after the younger boys.

While many children of drug addicts in Pakistan are themselves condemned to a future of poverty and drugs, the boys’ luck turned when rotund and good-humoured Asif Khan entered their lives.

Appointed by a local charity to work with orphans, he convinced local elders to allow the brothers, then aged five and six, to return with him to the orphanage.

There Sultan and Rahim found a degree of stability, he said, adding that they are “very clever, very high in the class”.

In 2007, the boys’ destiny collided with history when the Taliban rose up in Swat demanding Pakistan impose sharia, or Islamic, law and their father, along with countless other down-and-outs and their older brother, joined the Islamists.

The Taliban were initially applauded for dispensing swift justice -- punishing criminals and solving legal problems left fallow by a corrupt state.

But they governed by fear and terrorised the local population with brutal killings as they tried to impose their harsh interpretation of Islam.

At the orphanage, Khan and his staff did their best to protect their charges from ubiquitous Taliban propaganda but soon the children were idolising the Taliban as heroes, turning plastic bottles into toy Kalashnikovs and pretending to be militant commanders.

Khan said he tried to forbid the games, but added: “The Taliban came several times and told me to let them play like Taliban heroes.”

And then in April the onslaught came, as the Pakistani government, under mounting US pressure, launched a full-scale assault in Swat and the surrounding areas of Buner and Lower Dir.

“My older brother was killed by security forces in Peochar (a Taliban stronghold in Swat),” Sultan said.

“Then five days later, they burnt our house” on the outskirts of Mingora, he said, adding in a murmur: “We asked for our brother’s body, but they never gave it.”

Commanders say victory is in sight and have promised that people forced out of their homes by the fighting can soon return.

For his part, Khan is waiting impatiently to continue his teaching and says it is his mission to win back hearts and minds from the Taliban.

“I will prevent Talibanisation. I will destroy the next Taliban generation,” he said.

But Sultan seems unable to forget the army killings and when asked if he plans to avenge his brother’s death, he hesitated -- his teachers are not far away -- before he said: “I can’t say anything about it.”

But he does want the troops to leave so life can return to “normal” and openly praises some Taliban members “who are on the right path”.

“They order people to pray. They solve people’s property problems. They arrest drug traffickers,” he said.

The teenager dreams of becoming a civil engineer and developing his village, but is clear in his belief that the actions of the army are only contributing to grassroots support for the Taliban.

“When security forces kill a man, the rest of his family supports the Taliban,” he said.