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From trainee suicide bomber to new life in Pakistan

Young Hazarat Bilal says he feels lucky to be embarking on a new life after escaping the clutches of the Taliban in the pristine surroundings of Pakistan's Swat valley.

world Updated: Jul 10, 2011 13:53 IST

Young Hazarat Bilal says he feels lucky to be embarking on a new life after escaping the clutches of the Taliban in the pristine surroundings of Pakistan's Swat valley.

Just over a year ago, he says he fled a Taliban prison in Chuprial, 40 kilometres (25 miles) northwest of Mingora, the district's main town.

Today, he tells journalists invited to inspect an army programme to "de-radicalise" brainwashed youth, his hero is all-round cricketing star Shahid Afridi, and not Osama bin Laden.

The 24-year-old is one of hundreds, potentially thousands of youths who were kidnapped or handed over by their families to train as suicide bombers or Taliban fighters in northwest Pakistan.

"Shahid Afridi is the pride of our nation," Bilal said at Mishal, one of three de-radicalisation centres in the Swat valley.

"I wish he could visit me," said Bilal of the hard-hitting batsman -- nicknamed "boom-boom Afridi" for his towering sixes, but unceremoniously dumped as captain for criticising cricket management.

Pakistan's military has had its back to the wall since American troops discovered and killed al Qaeda leader bin Laden within spitting distance of Pakistan's version of West Point.

Stung by allegations of incompetency or complicity that emerged after the May 2 Navy SEALs raid, the seemingly all-powerful army has faced criticism even worse than that it endured after Bangladesh separated from Pakistan in 1971.

Both domestically and internationally, it has been on the defensive.

A recent conference in Swat was designed to promote the army's achievements in the war against homegrown militancy. Tours of de-radicalisation centres were designed to convince journalists that their efforts were succeeding.

And yet there was no mention of the religious teacher at one of the schools, a public critic of the Taliban who was killed in October 2010.

At that centre, commanders were reluctant for journalists to mingle freely with students. The one boy wheeled out with good English peppered his tale with too many inconsistencies to believe what he was saying.

But back at Mishal, Bilal says he has spent nine months in counselling, and so great is his conversion that he hopes to be a soldier himself one day.

"I still remember the day when I escaped the Taliban prison. My parents brought me to this centre and it was like the start of a new journey to life."

The army claims to have de-radicalised 496 people, mostly males aged 18 to 25, since early last year. They say many surrendered during a military offensive in 2009 or escaped by themselves from Taliban prisons in the valley.

A senior army official said the purpose of the "De-radicalisation and Emancipation Programme" is "to bring a positive change in the boys and make them useful citizens of society".

But Bilal's tale of escape just over a year ago suggests that the Taliban continued to operate camps or prisons in Swat after the military declared it back under control in July 2009 following a two-year insurgency.

Privately, officers recognise that this was the case, but insist all centres in Swat have now been shut down.

Yet although Pakistan appears to have put down the Swat rebellion by the Taliban -- who beheaded opponents, burned schools and fought to implant a harsh brand of Islamic law -- there are fears they are regrouping further afield.

With militants dug into the tribal belt, many believe there are plenty of other so-called suicide bomb schools outside Swat.

Bilal is only too aware of what his fate could have been.

"They used to justify suicide attacks against the army by saying that ours is an army of sycophants and non-believers maligning Islam, and they need to be taught a lesson," he added.

"In many cases, the Taliban injected drugs into boys, strapped explosives to their bodies and blew them up near different targets by remote control when these boys lost control of their minds," he claimed.

Amjad Ali, 18, says he was kidnapped two years ago from his family of six brothers and five sisters, and that the Taliban told him that blowing himself up beside government forces would give him a "ticket to heaven".

"The lectures that Taliban used to deliver were so convincing that I started to believe in what they told me."

First Published: Jul 10, 2011 13:48 IST