Sav­ing street chil­dren from Tal­iban’s grasp

School strives to help aban­doned, ad­dicted young ripe for in­doc­tri­na­tion

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY KATHY GAN­NON

TPESHAWAR, PAK­ISTAN he boy was 2 when his mother dumped him on the streets and 4 when he spent his first night in a tiny prison cell, be­ing sex­u­ally as­saulted by an older in­mate. Pros­ti­tu­tion for money and shel­ter fol­lowed, then hashish and glue-sniff­ing.

Now 10 and gan­gly, he fid­geted and stared at the ground, speak­ing in a near-whis­per. “I’m ashamed,” he said. Yet in this rugged fron­tier city in north­west­ern Pak­istan, where peo­ple carry guns as ca­su­ally as they would a daily news­pa­per, this boy has hope. He has found refuge in what for Pak­istan is rel­a­tively rare: a char­ity-run board­ing school for home­less, drug-ad­dicted chil­dren.

Around Peshawar, heroin sells for less than 20 cents a hit.

“It’s the cheap­est place in the world to get heroin,” said Maza­har Ali, the school’s man­ager.

He ges­tured be­yond the school’s high walls. Heroin and just about ev­ery other vice are just a short walk away, he said.

The drugs all come from nearby Afghanistan, which pro­vides 90 per­cent of the world’s opium, from which heroin is made.

For Pak­istan, the re­sult is more than 4 mil­lion ad­dicts. Some of the youngest end up in mud-walled rooms be­ing drilled in ex­treme Mus­lim doc­trine by Tal­iban ex­trem­ists who roam rel­a­tively freely in Peshawar.

“Some­times the mil­i­tants take these chil­dren to North Waziris­tan and teach them to be sui­cide bombers, and some­times they give the chil­dren drugs and the child might not even know that he is go­ing to be blown up,” Mr. Ali said.

At the school, a boy named Osama told of mem­o­riz­ing the Ko­ran, Is­lam’s holy book, while Tal­iban mil­i­tants hov­ered over him.

He said he was tor­tured. He es­caped, and a month ago, he was found sleep­ing on the floor of a ram­shackle ho­tel, said Umaima Zia, the school psy­chol­o­gist.

On the lawn in front of the four-story school, Osama sat cross-legged on a chair in the af­ter­noon sun, his small body sway­ing as he re­cited Ko­ranic verses to his fel­low stu­dents.

A sin­gle work­ing woman, Ms. Zia, 25, is un­usual in this con­ser­va­tive re­gion, where girls of­ten are mar­ried off soon af­ter pu­berty.

Quick to smile, she gen­tly draws out the chil­dren’s ac­counts of what they have en­dured.

She brings stuffed an­i­mals to the school, and even the older boys cling to them. She gave the sex­u­ally as­saulted boy a furry lion-shaped hat that he rarely takes off ex­cept for pray­ers.

That child’s mother was found a while ago, but she would not take him back.

“She didn’t want me,” he mut­tered, al­most in­audi­bly. “She said I was garbage.”

Chil­dren gen­er­ally stay three months at the board­ing school, long enough for detox­i­fi­ca­tion.

The school, run by a fam­ily-owned char­ity called the Dost Foun­da­tion, has 32 board­ers, all boys. A sep­a­rate fa­cil­ity for girls is planned be­cause mix­ing of the sexes is shunned in Pak­istan.

Ms. Zia told of find­ing one lit­tle girl knock­ing on car win­dows ask­ing about 60 cents to bare her chest to the oc­cu­pants. She was 6.

“It’s sad, so sad that there is noth­ing for girls here,” she said. “Most of the girls are home­less. Not so many are drug users. Many are scav­engers, but they are very vul­ner­a­ble to abuse.”

Eleven of the boys in the school are in­tra­venous drug users, and two have AIDS.

Dr. Sikan­der Khan, whose fam­ily started the char­ity 20 years ago, said the AIDS prob­lem is get­ting worse.

Pak­istan is a poor coun­try, and 70 per­cent of its 180 mil­lion peo­ple are younger than 30, with more chil­dren us­ing drugs in­tra­venously and AIDS rates ris­ing, said Dr. Khan, a physi­cian who in­terned in New York. He es­ti­mated roughly 7,000 chil­dren were liv­ing home­less on the streets of Peshawar.

Dr. Khan said roughly half of Pak­istan’s heroin ad­dicts are be­lieved to be in­tra­venous users. Although the United Na­tions es­ti­mates there are 97,400 HIV pa­tients, just 4,112 are reg­is­tered.

Dr. Khan’s char­ity also sup­ports com­mu­nity schools and pro­vides re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion fa­cil­i­ties for adult ad­dicts as well as vo­ca­tional train­ing for young boys and girls.

It gets money from the Euro­pean Union, the United States and the United Na­tions, but Dr. Khan said the char­ity is short of funds and has had to close some of the schools.

“There is a lot of [in­ter­na­tional] fund­ing for in­fra­struc­ture like roads, but when it comes to drugs, when it comes to street chil­dren and shel­ter homes, the fund­ing is not there or it is very small,” he said.

The trend might be chang­ing, if only be­cause of fear that the ne­glected chil­dren will be­come Tal­iban fod­der.

Dr. Khan said there is ev­i­dence this re­cruit­ing is hap­pen­ing. There is no cer­tainty the chil­dren are be­ing turned into ter­ror­ists, but he sees a grow­ing recog­ni­tion that they are ex­ploitable and need help.

Inam, 15, has been through detox­i­fi­ca­tion at the board­ing school sev­eral times.

Short and squat, he is no­to­ri­ous as Peshawar’s most ac­com­plished pick­pocket — so no­to­ri­ous that he was the sub­ject of a doc­u­men­tary.

He has his own gang. He has been in prison on at­tempted-mur­der charges. He keeps po­lice of­fi­cers on his pay­roll and has scars on his leg from acid thrown by ri­vals who tried to steal his gun.

A month ago, he dis­cov­ered he has HIV, and his tough-guy im­age crum­bled. He thinks he got the virus from shar­ing nee­dles with other drug users. As he spoke his eyes grew wet, but he quickly wiped them with his sleeve and com­posed him­self.

On the wall of the chil­dren’s dor­mi­tory, a poster tries to of­fer hope with words in English writ­ten against a back­drop of hellish red flames:

“I am in hell, but that doesn’t mean I will stay for­ever.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

A young drug ad­dict talks to a Dost Foun­da­tion psy­chol­o­gist in Peshawar, Pak­istan. Afghanistan’s flour­ish­ing opium trade has re­sulted in 4 mil­lion ad­dicts in Pak­istan, many of them chil­dren who end up be­ing ex­ploited by Tal­iban ex­trem­ists.

Inam, a 15-year-old drug ad­dict, gang leader and ex-con with po­lice of­fi­cers on his pay­roll, sheds a tear when talk­ing about his re­cent AIDS di­ag­no­sis.

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