Children bear brunt of Afghan conflict

Aid workers fear long-term impact of violent trauma on young boys recruited as combatants by both sides in Afghanistan.

Pro-government forces also have been responsible for directly harming children in this lengthy conflict [EPA]

Kabul, Afghanistan – At the age of just 12, Moheb was forced to become a suicide bomber by his uncle, a Taliban commander in the village of Boldak in the southern province of Zabul.

Moheb told Al Jazeera that his uncle, Baba Khan, forced him to wear a suicide vest last year and instructed him on how to blow himself up next to a convoy of foreign troops.

“There were three of us, all children, and they put suicide vests on us – there was a button and they told us, ‘Press this when you get close to the Americans’.”

But unlike his two young comrades, Moheb failed in his mission and threw the vest into a well. He says at least one of the other children detonated his vest at a police checkpoint.

“I was so scared, I could not get near to the soldiers. I told him [his uncle] that they would have killed me had they figured it out.”

Baba Khan tormented Moheb and threw him out of the family, prompting provincial authorities to send the boy to Kabul where he now lives in a government-run orphanage and is in the third grade.

“Our schools were burnt by the Taliban,” the boy said.

Moheb (front) lives in a government-run orphanage and is in third grade [Moh Sayed Madadi/Al Jazeera]

In the firing line

Moheb’s case is not unusual. Children in Afghanistan are being used by the Taliban as suicide bombers and combatants, say aid workers concerned about the lack of policy towards those they see as the hidden victims of the country’s conflict.

Parents may also be manipulating identity documents to raise the age of their sons to enrol them in pro-government forces in order to secure an income, aid workers say.

Organisations that work with children say the impact of the conflict on them goes far beyond their recruitment as fighters, and the resulting damage to the children’s mental health has not even received minimal attention.

Abdul Aziz Froutan, a spokesman for UNICEF in Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera that the UN has documented 97 cases in which combatants recruited children, some as young as eight-years old.

“From these, the majority [72] were recruited by armed opposition groups and nine of them were exclusively sent to perform suicide attacks,” Froutan said.

Aid officials say children are being used by both sides in the country’s conflict.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) said although officially there are no children in the Afghan army and police, they continue to be recruited by local authorities – the Arbaki – because of improper recruitment mechanisms.

Repeated calls to the Ministry of Interior for a comment were not returned at the time of publication.

The commission also said poverty and corruption have allowed many parents to manipulate the ID documents of their sons to enrol them in the armed forces.

Deadly conflict

Pro-government forces have also been responsible for directly harming children in this lengthy conflict.

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan’s Annual Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, in 2013 pro-government forces were responsible for 11 percent of civilian casualties – a 57 percent increase on 2012.

There were three of us, all children, and they put suicide vests on us - there was a button and they told us: 'Press this when you get close to the Americans'.

by Moheb, failed suicide bomber

Niaz Mohammad, 13, lives in the same Alauddin orphanage as Moheb – one of the few government-run centres for children who do not have families to take care of them – and dreams of one day becoming a doctor.

A native of the highly insecure southern Helmand province, he returned home from the mosque one day in 2012 to find his house was nothing but ashes. An air strike by foreign troops left him the only survivor of a family of 25.

Niaz spent a year alone in Helmand before being transferred to Kabul, which he likes because “there is no war here”.

The victims of the current Afghan conflict are primarily children. Out of about 3,000 civilian casualties, according to the UN’s Secretary General’s Global Report on Children and Armed Conflict in 2013, more than 1,700 were kids – a 34 percent increase on 2012.

Most of these casualties were caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), but, while the report refers to those who are either killed or injured, it does not examine how many children are affected indirectly by warfare.

AIHRC spokesman Rafi Bidar said the conflict has multiple effects on children who are often victims of human trafficking, rape, forced labour and displacement – damaging their health and educational opportunities.

“As we are all aware of, many children have been recruited to preform suicide attacks,” Bidar said. “We know it is the most brutal image, but it is not the only way war and conflict affects children.” 

“The UN has documented cases of children being recruited,” he added. “We have the same findings and observations that children are used to perform suicide attacks, to place mines and explosives and to bring information about targets as they are less likely to considered as spies.”

“Many of these children are trained and brainwashed from a very early age in religious schools,” Bidar said. “They need close supervision and consistent efforts to recover mentally and be integrated into society.”

Mental health

However, cases that illustrate such issues may not be identified in many annual surveys and reports. For example, Zubaida Akbar, the spokeswoman for Save the Children, says the agency’s staff encountered a teenage girl who lost her entire family in the recent unrest in Kuduz.

 Zubaida Akbar says her group has a special mentor for those kids affected by war, ‘but that is not enough’ [Moh Sayed Madadi/Al Jazeera]

While Moheb and Niaz have been lucky to secure shelter and basic educational opportunities, no attention has been paid to the damage caused by the war to their mental health.

They both struggle to cope with post-traumatic stress: Moheb is withdrawn and speaks in a low voice, while Niaz often exhibits a violent attitude.

Akbar says more attention must be paid to the indirect impact of war on children, adding her organisation offers special counselling in the rehabilitation centres run in several major cities for kids who work on the streets.

“We have a special mentor for those kids affected by war, but that is not enough,” she said. “Wider efforts are needed, but focused to help children who have suffered from conflict and violence.”

But neither the Afghan government nor any other organisation have been able to document how many children have been traumatised by the current conflict.

Thousands work on the streets following the loss of a breadwinner in the family, or because of displacement caused by the conflict left their families without an income. 

Street children are vulnerable to sexual abuse, human trafficking, and forced begging in addition to being deprived of their basic rights to education, health, shelter and recreation.

Organisations such as UNICEF and AIHRC are among those that have called on both sides of the conflict to stop causing casualties among civilians – children in particular.

But there is growing agreement among aid workers that there is a dire need to address the absence of a policy-oriented approach to addressing the broad impact of war on children.

Follow Moh. Sayed Madadi on Twitter: @madadisaeid

Source: Al Jazeera