Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Child Kidnapping Rife

Hundreds of children are abducted every year but so far the government has been unable to stop the problem.
By Wahidullah Amani

When the dishevelled thirteen-year-old boy walked into the room where his parents and family were gathered, his 65-year-old grandmother fainted while his mother stood frozen in one spot for five minutes. His father couldn’t believe his eyes


Dirty clothes hung from the youth’s small frame. He wore old Russian shoes; the cracked skin on his hands bore testament to months of outdoor labour.


Gul Rahman, was kidnapped last July and sold as a slave to an old woman. He doesn't know exactly where he was taken, but it was a Dari-speaking area, probably somewhere in northern Afghanistan.


"I was on the street and a car stopped,” the boy said as he recalled his ordeal. “The men inside called me over and when I went to the car I saw four of them and they took me with them.


"They said that we were going for a ride and would come back. But they took me to a place I have never seen before."


He was held captive for the next 12 months until he finally plucked up his courage and escaped, hitchhiking back to Kabul and into the arms of his mother Frishta and his grandmother Gul Reza.


Compared with many, Gul Rahman was lucky. He is one of hundreds of youngsters across Afghanistan who have been the victims of kidnappers. Many are never seen again, despite desperate efforts by their parents.


Shansuddin, 46, Gul’s father checked all the hotels in Ghazni, Jalalabad, Mazar-e-Sharif and even went to Peshawar, Karachi and Islamabad in Pakistan after his son went missing. He placed a missing notice about his son in the newspaper of the International Security Assistance Force and on radio and TV.


"The worst experience in my life was the day I lost my son. and the happiest was when my son came back to home," he said.


According to the interior ministry, more than 200 children have been kidnapped in the last 12 months. The United Nations’ Children’s Fund, UNICEF, puts the figure at 300.


Both figures may greatly underestimate the problem. Over the course of just a seven-day period last month, IWPR discovered that:


On June 22, kidnappers snatched two boys and drove them from Jalalabad towards the border with Pakistan. At the border crossing, Mohammed Salim, 12, and Helmatullah, 10, escaped and alerted the authorities;


On June 27, four Kabul children were anaesthetised by spray and driven to Jalalabad. They were discovered at a police checkpoint and the kidnappers were arrested;


On June 28, in east Kabul, a kidnapper snatched Mohammed Karim, 10. He was sprayed with an anaesthetic and dragged into a car along with two other boys who had been drugged. All three somehow managed to escape.


On June 29, three men appeared at Kabul primary court to face charges of child kidnapping, the first such prosecution in Afghanistan. In what was seen by many as light sentences, two were sentenced to five years for kidnapping, while the third was jailed for four years for attempted kidnapping.


Child kidnapping takes place across the country and involves boys and girls. Some are taken to Pakistan, Iran or Arab countries. Some are taken from their home region to other parts of Afghanistan.


Often the children are sold into slavery by their abductors. Sometimes they are taken for sexual exploitation or forced marriages. Others are snatched to have their organs removed and sold for transplant.


Gul Rahman was sold into slavery to an old woman in another part of Afghanistan. He said he was responsible for grazing the woman's goats and that he was basically well treated.


His father refused to provide too many details about what happened to his son because he said he is still afraid of the kidnappers.


"If the government is not able to do anything against those people and groups, how can we reveal anything about them? I am scared that they may come back to kidnap our children [again]," he said.


The case of a massive child-kidnapping ring uncovered in the northern province of Takhar illustrates the government’s failure to deal effectively with the problem.


In 2003, interior ministry officers in Takhar recovered 85 boys between the ages of seven and 17, almost all of whom had been abducted from the neighbouring province of Badakhshan.


According to the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, report on Trafficking in Persons, "Police interviews revealed a well-established network of smugglers in Kunduz, Kabul and Iran."


The final destination for the boys was Zahidan, Iran, the report said, adding, “Officials have stated the belief that they [the boys] may be used for forced prostitution, or organ removal."


Seven kidnappers were arrested in Takhar, but were returned to their home province of Badakhshan because of jurisdictional issues. As recently as January of this year, police there had still taken no action against the accused kidnappers.


IOM also details child kidnapping in south Afghanistan, where young boys are snatched and held for a short period and sexually abused. The report also cites cases in the north, where girls and young women are abducted and forced into marriage.


According to the IOM, much of the responsibility for these abductions lies with local commanders and armed groups.


Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the interior ministry, declined to blame any specific group for the abductions.


"The groups involved in child kidnapping do it for money and then send [the children] abroad to abuse them in manual labour or transplant of their body organs” he said.


He acknowledged that the kidnapped children, especially girls, are frequently sexually abused, and that many are taken to Arab countries, which he declined to name.


Hangama Anwari, the head of the children's rights department of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said she believed local commanders are behind the kidnappings.


She says that the individuals and groups involved in child kidnapping are linked to an organized network which operates both in Afghanistan and other countries.


Speaking prior to the country's first prosecution of child kidnappers, Anwari said that more than 200 people had been arrested for being involved in kidnapping children, but that none of them had been punished. She said this meant that the network was more powerful than the Afghan government.


"It's very clear and obvious that the local commanders are involved in these crimes,” she said. "The warlords' power is above the government's power."


The government appears belatedly to be making some effort to address the child kidnap problem.


Earlier this month, President Hamed Karzai issued a decree imposing the death sentence on those found guilty of killing a kidnapped child. In addition, the jail term for those guilty of injuring an abducted child was also lengthened.


The decree also calls upon the attorney general in Kabul and related offices to investigate child kidnapping cases speedily and forward them to the appropriate court.


Interior ministry spokesman Mashal said that in the last three months, more than 150 kidnappers have been arrested, including 20 in one week.


But the real test will be whether the authorities prosecute the powerful men running the networks or any of the local commanders who may also be implicated.


So far, the signs of that are not encouraging, and Karzai may ultimately pay a political price for not dealing with the problem.


Wali Mohammed, 65, from northeast Kabul, lost his 13-year-old daughter, Sabera, to child kidnappers six months ago. She left home to go to enrol in an English course and never came back.


Tears stream down the old man's white beard as he mourns his daughter – and vents his anger at the government.


"The Taleban were better than the government of Hamid Karzai, because they punished criminals and no one dared to commit such crimes under their regime,” he said.


Wahidullah Amani is a staff reporter for IWPR in Kabul.