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

A Nation's Disappearing Children

Distraught parents turn to television to report their missing children, while concern grows over the numbers of minors sent aboard to work illegally.
By Shahabuddin Terakhel

Eleven-year-old Shoib Younus left his home in Kabul to visit his aunt's house in the Khair Khana neighbourhood one morning several months ago. He has not been seen since.

"We have announced his disappearance twice on television, but have not had any information,” said his father, Engineer Younus. "I don't know where my child is, or whether he is alive or dead."

His mother Shaima is distraught. "I always think about him and see him in my dreams," she said. "I am afraid I may go mad."

The couple believes that they would have heard if Shoib had had an accident. They say their son was too happy to have simply run away. They now fear that he may be one of the many children who have been reported kidnapped across the country.

While some Afghan authorities say that abductions are on the rise, an official for the United Nations’ agency for children UNICEF said increased monitoring and reporting of the problem have simply led to greater awareness.

"In 2001, who could they report it to? No one,” said Foroogh Foyouzat, head of UNICEF's child protection section. "Now you have the ministry of the interior in some sense functioning in the provinces; you have the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission functioning in the provinces, so we hear more about it."

Last year, more than 400 appeals for missing children were aired on a new service offered by Radio and Television Afghanistan, RTA – a technological advance over the traditional announcements at local mosques.

Officials differ on why Afghan children are disappearing.

Some say it appears they are being trafficked out of the country for forced labour. Others contend the children are being sent abroad to earn money illegally for their families. Local or tribal disputes sometimes also lead to kidnappings. Lawlessness in much of the country makes abductions difficult to stop.

Abdul Jamil, chief of criminal investigations for the government, would not give any figures regarding the number of children who have gone missing, but said that youngsters coming to the capital from surrounding villages in search of work are particularly vulnerable to abduction.

Jamil said that in some cases, children are forced to work as beggars, turning over their takings to their kidnappers. Some of the abducted children have been used to transport drugs across international borders, he said.

Mohammad Yousuf broadcast an appeal for his child, Anwar, after his son vanished 10 months ago in east Kabul.

"We have made announcements on the radio and on television but nobody has given us any information,” Yousuf, a taxi-driver, told IWPR. "Just like other days, he had been out playing – and he went missing from the playground."

Fazel Jalil, programme officer with the International Save the Children Alliance operation in Afghanistan, said the problem has now reached such a level that his group plans to survey government ministries and non-governmental organisations, NGOs, that work with children, so as to determine exactly how many youngsters have disappeared and how best to combat the problem.

Foyouzat said that only a few cases of kidnapping have been documented so far, and most of those involve children being taken because of ethnic and family disputes, or for ransom.

UNICEF reported that 164 Afghan children recently returned to Afghanistan from Saudi Arabia, where many apparently had worked to earn money for their families back home. Many of these children came from the northern province of Baghlan, where the economy has been devastated by years of drought.

The UN recently announced that it was supporting a new drive to prevent smugglers from taking Afghan children to other countries.

UN spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said his organisation’s agencies, working with government officials and a number of NGOs "have been working on a comprehensive set of essential measures aimed at curbing this illegal practice and raising awareness about the problem".

The problem of missing or kidnapped children is by no means limited to the capital.

In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, several children are believed to have been kidnapped over the past several weeks.

Nazila, 7, and Amruddin, 8, who lived in different section of the city, disappeared while shopping at grocery stores near their homes. Their families search all day but learned nothing. The police have also been unable to find any trace of the children.

The families of both missing children blame the presence of armed men in Mazar-e-Sharif for the kidnappings and general insecurity there.

"The existence of these irresponsible gunmen and the carelessness of the security authorities are the cause of these kidnappings,” said Nazila's mother, Sharifa, who lives in a rented house in east Mazar-e-Sharif. She said it is impossible that anyone kidnapped Nazila for ransom because the family's financial problems are no secret to anyone who knows them.

Jamil said that ultimately, it is parents who are responsible for the safety of their children, and urged families to keep a closer eye on their youngsters.

But that’s not good enough for distraught parents. "Where is Islam in Afghanistan?” asked Shah Bibi of Kabul's Saroobi district, whose son Nesar, 8, is missing.

"I looked for him in Pakistan and Afghanistan for three months,” she told IWPR. "With all this talk of human rights in Afghanistan, where is the action?”

Shahabuddin Terakhel is a journalism trainee with IWPR in Kabul; Hasina Rasuli is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.