Children, would-be suicide bombers, face release
Those accused of perpetrating, attempting attacks as young as 12
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.”
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.