| Two Kashmiri youths arrested by the BSF in September for crossing into India from Pakistan. They claimed they were kidnapped from Gulmarg and trained by the Hizb-ul Mujahideen. (PTI)
Srinagar, Oct. 2: Manzoor Najar hid in the shadows as his seniors sneaked past the men in uniform. Then the gunfire began.
When the roar of machine guns finally fell silent, most of his friends lay dead — all but four of them had barely entered their teens.
At 17, Manzoor is older than most of the young recruits joining the ranks of terrorists in insurgency-racked Jammu and Kashmir. Some of them have barely crossed six, but they know how to blow up a car — with themselves inside.
Lured or coerced into militancy, children are being trained to fight the “jihad”. They are ideal recruits because it is easy to both intimidate and indoctrinate them.
From the point of view of the militants, it makes sense, too. The young martyrs can drive up in a car, glide in on a cycle or simply come on foot. Nobody would suspect them and even if they do, by the time security forces realise, it is too late. The RDX would already have destroyed the target.
Recruiting from the Valley also helps militant organisations beat the criticism that most of their cadre are Pakistani.
Early last year, when India was mobilising troops on the border, hundreds of children are believed to have been forced into the ranks of the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Hizb-ul Mujahideen. Dozens were arrested, but many more died while crossing the Line of Control.
In May 2000, the first group of child recruits was arrested. Thirteen children from Doda and south Kashmir were arrested near Bhimber Gali on the LoC in Poonch and returned to their parents.
For many of these child warriors, the Prime Minister of India is General Pervez Musharraf and their hero is Afaq Ahmad Shah, the high school student who drove a car packed with explosives into the Badamibagh cantonment two years ago. Afaq was the first suicide bomber in the state and the first Kashmiri boy to give up his life for azaadi.
But it is not the same as 10 years ago when children who joined the ranks of the terrorists had social respect and power. Most of the young adolescents now join out of fear that after graduation they will not get jobs. Very few of those who joined the Jaish-e-Mohammad seem to have known what they were letting themselves in for.
“We were told that he was setting up a charity to distribute money to poor people, and that our help was needed,” said Manzoor, who along with childhood friend Shaukat Ahmad Bhat, a school dropout, was contacted by a Jaish operative.
A couple of months later, both boys left their homes in Gulshanabad, near Pulwama, and headed for the remote mountain village of Kellar. One morning, along with six other children from the Pulwama area, they were taken at gunpoint across the Pir Panjal mountains.
On the Surankote heights, along with 70 other children, Manzoor and Shaukat were housed in stone huts and subjected to intense indoctrination. “There were four teachers who used to give us lessons on the jihad, on why the Sufi religion we practise in Kashmir was wrong. When I questioned their viewpoint, I was beaten blue. The days were spent watching groups infiltrating the LoC to Doda via Surankote,” Shaukat recalled.
The army soon caught up with them. When the encounter at the Hill Kaka hills began, their group was divided into three and ordered into the forests. Most of the friends they had made were killed.
Children from poor rural homes have less choice than those who come from rich families. “We had been warned that if we did not join the Lashkar-e-Toiba our mothers and sisters would be raped,” said 16-year-old Bilal Ahmad. “We did not want our families hurt.”
Army officials estimate that this year alone, over 1,500 children from the Valley will be recruited. To counter the influence of terrorists, various units of the army stationed in the Valley have sponsored groups of schoolchildren on tours around India. The different groups, comprising 25 to 30 children each on an average, have been taken to Delhi, Agra, Ajmer, Jaipur, Mumbai and Goa. Some are being educated at the army school in Beas.
“We have to ingrain in their minds that they belong to India and not just the Valley. It helps to bring them to the mainstream and erase the feeling of alienation which the terrorists have so successfully used to rope in fresh recruits,” said an officer.