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

Helmand Parents Face Unenviable Dilemma

Kept at home their sons may join the Taleban, but if sent to study in Pakistan there’s a risk they’ll become suicide bombers.
By IWPR-trained journalists
After a year at a madrassa in Pakistan, Farid (not his real name), from Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, said the teachers began readying their students for suicide-bombing missions in his homeland.



“I spent three years in the madrassa,” he said. “For a year they gave us religious lessons, and they would also preach jihad. But then they started to tell us that we should go to Afghanistan and fight.



“They were preparing suicide bombers. Last year, I came home to Helmand for the holidays, and witnessed a suicide bombing. I saw how innocent people suffered in those attacks, and I thought about my fellow students. I could understand the suicide bomber, I knew [how he had been indoctrinated].”



Farid is one of a growing number of young men from Helmand who have been sent to Pakistan to continue their education. He was one of the lucky ones: after he saw the full effects of a suicide attack, he left the madrassa and came home.



But many more Afghan students are still in various religious schools in Pakistan, imbibing violence along with their lessons.



Once they are ready, these madrassa students stream back across the porous Afghan-Pakistan border, charged with wreaking havoc in their homeland.



Helmand, in southern Afghanistan, is one of the epicentres of the Taleban insurgency, as well as the world capital of opium poppy. The nexus of drugs and jihad has made the province highly unstable, and normal life has all but ceased.



Schools in Helmand have been closing with some regularity over the past three years. According to the provincial department of education, there are only 54,000 children in school this year, less than half the number of even one year ago, and a mere fraction of the school-age population, estimated to be about 245,000.



Given the difficulties of studying in Helmand, many families choose to send their sons to Pakistan, where there are numerous madrassas.



“There are lots of madrassas in Pakistan,” said Farid. “Some of them are famous, like Kharotabad, Quetta, Pashtunabad, Shaldara, Nauroz Kalai, Kochlagh, Landikalai, and Wazirabad. In [each], there is a mullah heading the madrassa and each mullah has from 20 to 30 students.”



While the majority of these institutions are legitimate centres of learning, many have an additional agenda, as Abdullah, a boy from Nadali district in Helmand, soon found out.



“I was having some problems with my family, so I ran away from home,” he said. “I headed for Pakistan, and a few days later I was on a bus to Lahore. Everyone could tell by my Helmandi clothes that I was Afghan, not Pakistani. A man with a black beard and a white skull cap came and sat beside me.



“He said his name was Ali Ahmad, and he asked me a lot of questions. He spoke to me in Peshawari Pashto, since I did not know Urdu, and he asked about my passport, where I was from, and how much money I had. Finally, he told me that he would take me to a nice place where I could study and make money at the same time.”



Abdullah ended up in Dera Adamkhan, a village near Lahore, where Ali Ahmad introduced him to a madrassa attached to the local mosque.



“It was full of students,” he recalled. “Everyone was welcoming me, and they were so nice to me I was surprised. ‘Why are they all so good?’ I asked myself.”



Abdullah was given food, clothing, and study materials. He was treated as a guest, and he responded to the warmth of his new home. But soon he saw another side of his hosts.



“One day, they took me to a very strange place,” he said. “There were weapons depots and a lot of ammunition. There were vests for suicide bombers. They took me into a room with about 15 teenagers; later I realised that all of them were Afghan. None of them even looked at me. Most of them were too young even to have beards.”



After this experience, Abdullah went back to his madrassa and started asking questions. He was told that the young men he had seen were suicide bombers, ready to be sent to Afghanistan.



“I asked them, ‘Why are you not doing this work in Pakistan?’ And they told me that it was too difficult in Pakistan – the police would arrest them. But in Afghanistan, everything is out of control, everything is chaos,” said Abdullah.



Finally, Abdullah’s family found him, and took him home. His biggest regret is not being able to say goodbye to two of his friends who had carried out suicide missions.



“A few days ago someone called me, and told me that two of our mates had become suicide bombers,” he recalled. “They said goodbye to everyone, but I was not there. They are gone forever, and I did not get a chance to see their faces. I am very sorry about that.”



Abdullah’s own future is far from certain.



“Sometimes those guys [from the madrassa] call me,” he said. “They ask me to come back. But my family watches me closely. Still, I will go if I find the chance.”



The parents of Helmand’s young boys say they would prefer to keep their sons at home, rather than send them away where they might be exposed to dangerous ideologies. But they simply do not have the option.



According to Sher Agha Safi, head of the Helmand education department, schools are operating in only three of Helmand’s 13 districts, all of them primary grades.



The rest are closed, either because the parents are too afraid to let their children go out to school, or because the schools have been destroyed, often, say tribal elders, by the Taleban.



“We would like a madrassa in each district,” said Safi. “We have begun work on a madrassa in Sangin. The people there negotiated with the Taleban, who promised not to sabotage the project. But we cannot work there, due to security concerns.”



There is also a madrassa in Lashkar Gah, he added, with more than 600 students.



“We have really good ulema [religious scholars],” said Safi. “Better than in Pakistan. They are ready to teach in these madrassas. If we can reach an agreement with [the Taleban] on this issue, maybe Helmand’s youth will stop going to Pakistan.”



Gulab Mangal, governor of Helmand, has promised to address the problem, but he is battling a growing insurgency, limited resources, and the fraying patience of local people..



“Those students who are in Pakistan are being misused,” Mangal said. “Pakistan is brainwashing them and using them for suicide attacks. I call on all Helmandis to take their children out of Pakistan.”



A high-ranking official in the education ministry told IWPR that Pakistani madrassas had been preparing radicals since at least the 1990s.



“It is true that jihadists are being recruited in Pakistan,” he said. “I was a madrassa student in Karachi in the mid-1990s, and there were foreign students – Arabs, Chechens – who were training in martial arts.”



The curriculum in Pakistan’s religious schools has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, added the official, which was a large part of the problem.



“There has been no renewal, no change,” he said. “This gives rise to radical Islam.”



But even those who are able to study in Helmand’s own madrassas face difficulties.



“There are problems if you stay in Helmand,” said Gul Ahmad (not his real name). “The Taleban come to the madrassas and try to put pressure on the students to join them, to fight against the foreigners and the Afghan government. They say that the students should kill anyone who benefits from the government, no matter whether he is a doctor, a teacher, an engineer, just kill them.”



So parents face an unenviable choice – keep their sons close, and risk having them recruited by the Taleban, or send them to Pakistan, and worry that they might become suicide bombers.



“I sent one of my sons to Pakistan,” said Habibullah (not his real name), a resident of Nadali district. “I had to, because in Helmand every day the Taleban were coming and trying to take him away. When I saw what the Taleban were actually doing, I grew to hate the name of jihad. I wanted to keep my son safe from them. But in Pakistan they were working on him to become a suicide bomber. He was only 26 years old.”



Habibullah tried to order his son to come home, to no avail.



“We tricked him,” recalled Habibullah. “His brothers called him and said that I was dying; and he should come soon. When he arrived, he was carrying explosives used for suicide bombs. I don’t know how he managed to smuggle it all past the checkpoints. We kept him here. He was very angry with us at first, but he is much better now. I am happy that I saved my son from certain death.”



Almost all Helmandis agree that if they had facilities in their home province, they would never send their children to Pakistan.



“Please, build a madrassa in Sangin,” said a father of three, who would not give his name. “I want my sons to study, but I am afraid that if I send them to Pakistan they will learn suicide bombing instead of their religious lessons.”

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