Chil­dren, would-be sui­cide bombers, face re­lease

Those ac­cused of per­pe­trat­ing, at­tempt­ing at­tacks as young as 12

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - By Rod Nordland

KABUL, Afghanistan — The 14-year-old boy squat­ted on his haunches on the floor of the prison and, un­bid­den, be­gan to chant the verses of a Pashto poem in a high, beau­ti­ful voice. It was an a cap­pella el­egy in which a pris­oner im­plores his fam­ily not to visit him on the Mus­lim hol­i­day of Eid.

And do not come to us for Eid, for we are not free to wel­come you.

I don’t want you to look at my chest, for there are no but­tons on my shirt.

Don’t come to this asy­lum, for we are all lu­natics in here.

The boy’s name was Mus­lim, and he was among 47 boys be­ing held in the Badam Bagh ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion cen­ter in Kabul as na­tional se­cu­rity threats. Most were charged with plant­ing, car­ry­ing or wear­ing bombs, and many of them, like Mus­lim, were ac­cused of try­ing to be­come sui­cide bombers.

None of Mus­lim’s fam­ily vis­ited him dur­ing Eid last sum­mer. “They are an­gry with me,” he said. “I don’t blame them.”

For au­thor­i­ties, chil­dren like him present a co­nun­drum: what to do with them when they fin­ish their sen­tences, which of­ten range from two to 10 years. Many will be re­leased just as they reach adult­hood, when they are even more ca­pa­ble of caus­ing may­hem.

The Afghan Min­istry of Jus­tice ar­ranged for a re­porter to visit the prison last Au­gust at the re­quest of the New York Times. Be­cause of their youth, the boys in this ar­ti­cle are iden­ti­fied only by their first names, and then only names that are com­monly used in Afghanistan. Only those boys who agreed to par­tic­i­pate in the in­ter­views did so, and a min­istry of­fi­cial and a coun­selor were present.

The boys in what Badam Bagh of­fi­cials call the sui­cide bombers wing ranged in age from 12 to 17. Their cases were in var­i­ous stages; some had been con­victed and were serv­ing their sen­tences, while oth­ers were await­ing trial.

They shared one com­plaint: As far as they were con­cerned, there were no at­tempted sui­cide bombers in the sui­cide bombers wing, which is on the third floor of the prison.

Mus­lim, who is from Ku­nar prov­ince in east­ern Afghanistan, said he was only a Tal­iban con­script.

“I am not a sui­cider,” he said. “The Tal­iban made me fight for them.”

But then he added, with a smirk, “In prison, ev­ery­one lies.”

Shakur, a 14-year-old from Kun­duz prov­ince, had been in the prison for just a week when he was in­ter­viewed. Nearly 6 feet tall al­ready, Shakur still bore cuts and bruises all over his head and arms from a bomb that had ac­ci­den­tally blown up in his face. He said he had been with some­one else who set off the bomb and then fled.

Amin­ul­lah, also 14, had been in jail for 16 months. At age 13, he was caught with a bag full of ex­plo­sives and a phone full of mes­sages from the Tal­iban urg­ing him to kill Amer­i­cans.

“The lo­cal po­lice beat me to force me to con­fess,” he said.

Atiqul­lah, 16, had been in jail for seven months after set­ting off a bomb that killed six peo­ple and

wounded eight. Po­lice said that Atiqul­lah’s life had been spared when the bomb det­o­nated pre­ma­turely, but that he had clearly in­tended to die in the at­tack. In prison, he had just be­gun to grow a wisp of a beard.

“I did it,” he said. “But I wasn’t a sui­cider.”

Mo­ham­mad Aman Ri­azat, the Min­istry of Jus­tice of­fi­cial who set up the prison visit, dis­missed such claims.

“Ev­ery­one in jail is in­no­cent,” he said. “Many of these boys are sui­cide bombers.”

Those charged with sui­cide bomb­ing of­fenses are seg­re­gated from the al­most 700 other chil­dren in Badam Bagh, a fa­cil­ity that un­til 2017 housed only women, and in some cases their very young chil­dren, but is now a ju­ve­nile prison in­stead. In Au­gust, all but 21 of the pris­on­ers were boys.

“We can’t have these chil­dren to­gether with oth­ers, or they ex­port their ex­trem­ism and in­fect other kids,” said Ab­dul Baseer An­war, the Afghan min­is­ter of jus­tice. “Oth­er­wise they go in a thief and come out a sui­cide bomber.”

KIANA HAYERI NEW YORK TIMES

Shakur, 14, has cuts and bruises from a bomb that ac­ci­den­tally blew up in his face a week be­fore. He’s held at the Badam Bagh ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion cen­ter in Kabul.

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