Deradicalizing boys in Pakistan

Pakistan's Sabaoon organization is working to reintegrate child soldiers trained to be suicide bombers back into society. 

Most deradicalization efforts deal with grown men, responsible for their own choices. But in a few parts of the globe, the potential attackers are just as much victims as anyone they might have killed: kids trained to be suicide bombers.

In Pakistan, Feriha Peracha and a group of her colleagues are taking on the wrenching problem of bringing child soldiers back into society. Dr. Peracha points to one of the boys studying in the Sabaoon ("New Dawn") rehabilitation center.

"He was wearing a suicide vest, and had entered a mosque. He was ready to blow himself up; but he saw the men inside prostrating, and he realized that he was going to kill Muslims," she says.

Sabaoon has 85 students between ages 13 and 18. Peracha says that 100 more, many found by government forces at suicide bomber training camps, have been successfully reintegrated into society since 2009.

On the outside, Sabaoon can look like a prison, heavily guarded by men in uniforms with security checkpoints and barbed wire. With good reason. In 2010, one of their leading psychologists was murdered after he spoke out against the Taliban on television.

Sabaoon began as an Army-sponsored attempt to deradicalize children from Swat, but now draws boys from the tribal areas and the Punjab region as well.

"When they arrive here, they are very scared, not knowing what will happen, since the Army has captured them," says Peracha. "And it takes us months to give them confidence," she adds, saying she's reappropriating the word 'talib' for her charges.

"Talib is a beautiful word meaning student. And we teach them of 'jihad,' too, but it is about one's own struggle." She points to a wall hanging of Quranic verses. "For example, this verse says whoever kills an innocent person will go to hell."

Jihad is discussed often here. "We keep telling them that it is murder, not suicide, and we keep drumming that," Peracha says.

A student building a light switch in one of the vocational classes claims he had nothing to do with the Taliban: "Someone complained about me because they did not like me, and that's how I ended up here."

A staffer says most students deny involvement when they first arrive, but cross-checks usually prove otherwise.

Peracha says most of the boys suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and have flashbacks. "They are brainwashed into believing that this life is not a priority, but getting another life is."

In the computer lab, Peracha asks a student how he's doing. "I am quite happy, and I wish I can come and work here," the boy says as he shows her how to use Excel.

Later, Peracha says that the boy was caught at a training camp and that many of his peers had already been sent to their deaths. "Initially he could not learn or cope with the education; now he just [took] his exam, and passed with a [top] grade."

A look at the boys' artwork provides a window into what they've been through.

One painting has excessive use of red, illustrating blood pouring out of small oval black boxes that Peracha says reflect be-headings. She then points to a landscape of the Swat Valley. It was painted by a student after he went through rehabilitation.

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