At the juvenile detention centre in Kandahar there are two sets of children. The first are riotous and loud, arrested for theft and other crimes of that sort. When you give them a piece of paper and ask them to write down the reason they are in prison they simply scratch lines into the paper or scrunch it up. They can’t write. The second group are silent. But when they take the sheet of paper they begin to write the most beautiful script, their sentences full of fire and argument. These are the child jihadis and their mothers tell them they will succeed next time.

The prison isn’t big on vocational training but they had some sewing machines before the man who operated them disappeared. Some of the boys are as young as ten and there is no education and too little water. But ‘the political boys’, as the guards call them, are keen to point out the legality of their activities from their point of view. The Afghan government, for reasons nobody understands, aims to move the children to a new site near Sarposa prison, a Taliban-rich area where adult inmates once sewed up their mouths in protest at what they believed was their unlawful detention. Evidence suggests that detained children are physically abused in these prisons. A boy who steals a pomegranate may steal another one and end up next to a kid who knows the quick way to another world.

One boy, Beltoon, came from the province of Paktia. The families in his village competed over whose sons would be sent to the madrassah. ‘You do not love your son, you do not teach him in the ways of Islam,’ the elders would say to parents who kept their sons at home. A counsellor I spoke to, Dr Shah Mohammad Abed, told me there has been a change in the villages: many elders now believe that the world has come to destroy Islam and they must fight back. Beltoon is 15: he was herding goats before his father decided he should go to the regional madrassah, where he spent nine months. The dean then asked for volunteers. Which of them wished to have ‘advanced’ education in Islam in Pakistan? Beltoon’s father and his uncles told him that this meant a better education.

‘Would he understand,’ I asked, ‘that going over the border would mean military training?’

‘The dean asks the child and his family if he wishes to be sacrificed in the way of Islam,’ Dr Abed replied. ‘This doesn’t mean giving him up to suicide bombing, but some will be. It can escalate from one madrassah to another and eventually the child might find himself in a place where the children are training to be suicide-bombers. The students in these madrassahs will be taken to the ultimate training centre in Pakistan blindfolded. They don’t know where they are going and when they arrive at this camp they have lost their bearings.’

Beltoon was driven to Quetta. (The border is open so he couldn’t even be sure he was in Pakistan.) At the compound he met older children who began to persuade him of the ‘cause’ – it’s a familiar process. There was a great deal of physical exercise, hard work carrying packs in the sun. Beltoon had no direct contact with his family; once or twice the dean of his madrassah would pass on some news. Beltoon wasn’t surprised to hear nothing: his family seemed to him to live without questions and without news. They didn’t have knowledge such as he was gleaning during the months in Pakistan. He had begun to trust the leaders around him. He wanted to please them, Dr Abed said.

Beltoon was told that the index finger of his right hand was the Shahadat, the finger of ‘witness’, the digit of Allah. He was told he must use this finger on the suicide vest to be sure of his place in paradise. He must be sure to flick the switch firmly with this finger. (A Unicef worker explained: ‘When the Kalima-e-Shahadat is said in Tashahhud during the prayer, all the fingers except the index should be lightly closed like a fist, keeping the thumb with the middle finger in a circle. It is sunnah – following what the Prophet did – to raise the index finger.’) In this way the mentors suggest that what they are doing is part of an Islamic ritual and Beltoon was convinced he had found the best way to raise himself to the pinnacle of respect and into a life much greater than this one.

Beltoon was close to a boy called Sahim, also 15. After six months in Quetta they were driven to a local house in Kandahar province for further ‘initiation’. They got to know the location where they would do their holy work. Sahim appeared to have no end of enthusiasm for the planned attack. He enjoyed speaking to Beltoon about the logistics. He couldn’t wait. Early in 2012 the boys were dropped off on a street near the American base. They were walking side by side and saying nothing when an Afghan soldier near the entrance to the base saw them. They seemed unsure what to do – Sahim pushed Beltoon and they argued for a moment – and the soldier ordered them to stop and he summoned other military. The boys’ suicide vests were removed on the spot and that night they were taken to the detention centre in Kandahar. Beltoon hasn’t seen his mother again but a message was sent to him encouraging him not to give up hope. ‘Maybe next time,’ she said.

In the thick of Kabul the temperature soared into the forties and I became inured to a kind of security fatigue. The dust is a plague. Melons are heaped on carts by the roadside and along the Baghram Road there’s a crush of construction vehicles and diggers. I started counting them as I passed: CAT, Hyundai, JCB cranes, Manitou forklifts, orange Daewoo trucks, Komatsu plant hire. ‘This is all to do with the military,’ said Azlan, my fixer, who knows everything. He grew up here and attended Kabul University. ‘After next year all this construction work will stop and the vehicles will go. It’s one of the things people say about the British and the Americans: all their investment was in security. At least the Russians built blocks of houses and civic centres. They remain the most sought-after buildings in the city.’ A truck roared past heaped with onions; a man was asleep on top of them. Another man was standing in the road with a fistful of windscreen wipers, trying to sell them to passing drivers. It was White City that day, the security designation for a place where incidents were already happening or likely to happen. That morning, four suicide bombers had attacked Karzai’s palace and we could still see the smoke. White City is one step down from Red City, when people who don’t belong there are advised to get out.

It was June, and I had come in the wake of a Unicef report stating that the number of children killed or injured in Afghanistan had gone up by nearly 30 per cent in the past 12 months. From the beginning of the year until the end of April there were 414 child casualties. These are inflicted by every side in the conflict. On 3 June, a suicide attack beside a school in Paktia killed ten children and injured another 15. Three days later, an American air attack in Kunar Province killed three children and injured seven. Suicide bombers are casualties, too. I saw dozens of children walking in the streets and the Afghan police appear to pay no attention to them. It’s impossible to read intent in a face or a stance. You find yourself upbraided by the sight of a child walking up to a juice stall with his mother in a sky-blue burqa, the boy wearing a football top that says ‘Messi 10’ on the back.

There’s only one organisation in Afghanistan that is trying to rehabilitate children like Beltoon and Sahim. It’s called Tabish and is located in an unmarked street in the west of the city. We drove there in a bullet-proof car. Unicef supports Tabish but not everyone feels good about the UN. (A UN vehicle was shot at on the road to Kandahar just before I arrived.) When I got out of the car there were some men standing in the road and a few more seemed to gather. We were having trouble finding the right house. Azlan came up. ‘Please get back in the car,’ he said. ‘Go back now.’

Eventually I got to talk to the men who are running Tabish. A picture on the wall drawn by the child of a suicide bomber showed the moment the man blew himself up next to some American soldiers, the soldiers shooting at him from a helicopter. I asked what Tabish could do for children who have found themselves training to be suicide bombers. ‘Some of the children have deep depression after they end up in the correction centre,’ Dr Wais Aria, the executive director, told me. ‘Many of them also need counselling because they have been sexually abused by the older boys. And of course they cannot speak about it in front of the other children because of the stigma.’

‘And what about their families?’

‘Part of the problem,’ he says. ‘The family sometimes blames the child for failing. And we have found we have to try putting the family into therapy together. Sometimes the children won’t speak to us. Nothing. We have to use Islamic sources close to them in the prisons to begin the dialogue necessary to help them.’

It is never easy to get the political children out of their mindset. ‘The brainwashing has been so effective,’ Mr Ahmady said. ‘In one case, a child smuggled in information about how to escape from the prison. They killed a police officer in the attempt. The boy saw it as a second opportunity for glory after his suicide bombing failed.’

‘So how do you do it?’ I asked.

‘Cognitive therapy,’ Dr Aria replied. ‘We find ways to protect them and speak to them away from their parents. We use the Islamic tools they understand. It is a big challenge to change the behaviour of these children because, of course, we are not able to change their whole culture.’ It becomes obvious that these children were a kind of elite, enjoying better food and shelter in Pakistan than in their villages.

‘Most of them are in search of a life,’ Dr Aria’s colleague added. ‘An eternal life if possible.’ These kids might disappear at 12 and come back at 15 fully militarised and conscious of their own bodies as weapons.

I went with Dr Aria to their counselling centre at Deh Dana in District Seven. It was a low building with two classrooms on either side of a hot porch. A dozen boys were sitting cross-legged on a large red Afghan rug. The youngest was ten. There were mottoes around the walls and toys to play with but some of the boys were too shy or removed to play. I sat with them for a while on the rug and tried to judge their engagement. ‘I feel better since coming here,’ said Samoon, a 13-year-old who had had pressure put on him by his father and his uncle. He had very green eyes and couldn’t stop laughing. ‘I would like my own life now and I would like to be a civil engineer.’ The boy who sat next to him was called Ibrahim and he wanted to be a pilot. ‘I would like to help my country,’ he added. People who work with children like Samoon tell me war has undermined any sense of where they fit into the world.

A girl in a pink headscarf came up to me at Deh Dana. Dr Aria translated. ‘I want to say something,’ she said. ‘I don’t like violence, war or blood. I have hope for peace.’ Nuria, who is 12, wore a pretty red dress overlaid with a pattern in gold thread. Her face was scraped – she said she’d fallen down in the street – and she wanted her picture taken.

Two Chinooks were overhead as I made my way to see Peter Crowley, the Unicef representative in Afghanistan. They passed over the compound and disappeared into Camp Phoenix, the American base not far from the airport. The red-haired Crowley is a descendant of James Joyce with the multiple-passport-wielding aura of a Graham Greene character. He was Unicef’s man in Sudan for a long time. He feels this is a crucial moment for Afghanistan and is sure that the current situation, with rising violence and troop withdrawal imminent, constitutes a potential ‘perfect storm’ that could obliterate the hopes of the children they have spent years trying to help. ‘Ninety-five per cent of funding in Afghanistan comes from abroad,’ Crowley said. ‘Some of that is military and some is humanitarian. The withdrawal of these funds will lead to an immediate crisis.’ He asked for a chart to be brought in and turned it in my direction. ‘Look. Security incidents have gone through the roof. The big spike was in June 2011, and, while 2012 showed a slight dip, this year is back up again.’

I asked whether the Taliban was testing the resolve of the new security forces: ‘Probably,’ he replied. ‘The security system is bad. The economic crisis is a given. The political situation is unstable. And many of the donor organisations wish they could just close this chapter and move on.’

Elsewhere, you hear a lot of think-tank positivity on the withdrawal, making it seem more like a business opportunity than a potential humanitarian disaster. Transitional agencies talk about the country’s natural resources, about infrastructure development and the growth of the private sector. But if you’ve spent time in the hospitals and with the NGOs it’s hard not to wonder where the people are in all this. ‘Basic services are still a priority,’ Crowley said. ‘Even the Taliban want to send their daughters to school nowadays. But, you know: it’s a test of patience. It’s frustrating how some people go on as if Afghan history started in 2001 and will end in 2014. Unicef has been here since 1949.’

I kept coming back to Peter’s point about Taliban leaders who now want their daughters to be schooled. It’s true, but so is the opposite: there are many in the Taliban who hate the idea of girls being educated. People forget that the Taliban is not simply one thing, any more than the IRA is one thing (some see themselves on committees, some plant bombs in chip shops). Legions of Taliban members oppose polio vaccines; others, the types who want to come to the table, are working unofficially with the agencies. The extremists are said to have gained the upper hand, ironically, owing to the international coalition’s success in killing its middle management.

I passed the Baghi Bala Car Wash and noticed the security blimp floating over the centre of the city. ‘What’s it doing?’ I asked. ‘Taking pictures,’ someone said. ‘Taking pictures of our teachers trying to get to school. Or of your man coming in from the south on his onion truck.’ We passed the Darul Aman palace, dramatically shot to pieces, and we squeezed down alleyways bordered on each side by metal containers. This was the invasion that brought containers to Asia: they are hulking and rusting at the edge of every other street and the military say that every one of them will soon be lifted into the blue sky. One afternoon we parked by a container and I watched the Afghan National Army soldiers keeping guard at a roundabout. Most of the vehicles seemed destined for a construction site, bricks stacked in the rear and Pakistani mangoes on the dashboard, the men in front chewing and looking nervously at the officials.

I looked at some statistics. Last year, 1304 children were killed. IEDs were the main cause of death. Suicide attacks killed 42 children and injured 68. Hundreds of children were caught in mortar attacks or by shotgun fire. And 46 were targeted by armed opposition groups for being pro-government.

It is difficult to know how many children are held in detention centres because there is often no case documentation. In July 2012 it emerged that ninety children were being held in Parwan without any representation. According to a UN document that came my way, they ‘continued to receive reports of ill-treatment and torture of children in national detention facilities.’ This is largely unreported. Armed groups have been known to use schools as military bases and there is often a concerted effort by ‘community elements’ opposed to girls’ education. It is said that Afghan local police are every bit as likely as certain of the Taliban to abduct children and press-gang them into service of one sort or another. ‘On 12 August 2012,’ one source reports, ‘the Taliban abducted and beheaded a 16-year-old boy whom they accused of spying for the pro-government forces in Kandahar province and on 29 August 2012 they abducted and beheaded a 12-year-old boy because his brother was a policeman.’ Child protection workers continue to be concerned about the exploitation, by both sides, of ‘bachi bazi’ boys, who are forced to dress as women and dance for powerful patrons. One of the cables made public by WikiLeaks in 2010 revealed the use of these children by executives from the private US military contractor DynCorp. That it’s a bad time to be a child in Afghanistan is obvious. And now the spotlight threatens to move elsewhere. ‘It mustn’t move,’ Crowley warned. ‘Afghanistan needs the world’s attention like never before.’

You sometimes hear gunfire at night. By that time, long after the curfew, we were behind fences, but when I walked out of my room I saw a rabbit on the grass with its ears straight up. The next morning I went to a camp where refugees uprooted by the conflict were living. IDPs (internally displaced persons) have been flooding into Kabul from the south for years and the children in those groups are among the most vulnerable in the country. The camp I visited was in Gul-e-Surkh. A dilapidated cart painted in bright colours stood before the entrance and the children watched us over the wall, a trio of Black Hawks in the distance buzzing over their shoulders like flies. In a house made of mud and smelling of raw sewage, six girls sat in a close circle on the floor. They couldn’t speak, it was just too difficult for them, and I was soon left with their social workers, a busy woman, Miss Fawzia, and Mr Jobair, a man with one leg. Mr Jobair told me the girls were being given a lesson that day on ‘the purpose of life’. The voices had been quiet and next to the house a herd of goats were lying in their own dirt.

‘These girls are neglected,’ Miss Fawzia said. (When packs of biscuits were given to the children she had one too.) ‘There is much discrimination between the boys and the girls. We are trying to protect their human rights’. (The expression ‘human rights’ is a popular one among peoples who are used to international aid.) The girls are forced into marriage and no one will stop these men from beating them. ‘There is little water here’ continued Miss Fawzia. ‘We could give them proper support if we had more money. We could improve their health. There is only one water pump and one toilet. So, when a girl starts her period she immediately gives up on school, because of the worry, because of the embarrassment. We would love to have a child’s play area. The girls want nicer dresses.’

Broken gravestones surround the mosque at Kart-e-Sakhi and they cover the side of a hill called TV Mountain. In winter the area is under deep snow but when I arrived the hill was dry and the mosque was shimmering in the heat of the afternoon. Shias who come to worship under the turquoise domes of the mosque join more than seven hundred families who live on the steep slopes of the mountain. Water is needed for four thousand people and until recently only two working wells supplied it – the families, that’s to say, the girls, coming down the mountain several times a day hauling their large yellow buckets.

Hundreds of children were dying from drinking polluted water. And girls weren’t going to school because they were spending the day making the exhausting journey up and down the mountain. When I spoke to the village elder, Moharam, head of the shura, he said it was a cause for eternal celebration that a new water system had been installed in the foothills. As we talked a file of girls wearing blue uniforms walked behind him. ‘You see those girls?’ he said. ‘They would not be here going to school if we did not have this water well pumping water up the mountain. This was an emergency. And now those girls have a life. Let me tell you: it is a great contribution to the future for them.’ Moharam wanted to show me the plaque that had been erected to mark the work of Unicef’s WASH programme, promoting Water, Sanitation and Hygiene.

‘I can’t see it for dust,’ I said.

‘You can’t see them for dust either,’ said one of the team, pointing to the girls in their uniforms way down the road, on their way to their lessons.

There was an atmosphere of panic around Kabul the day of the suicide attack on Karzai’s palace. I received several warnings by text from the UN security office. WHITE CITY. EXPLOSION. AVOID AVIAN SQUARE. Roses were creeping over the walls and they too were smeared in dust. A boy got off his bicycle at a cigarette stand and squatted to inflate his tyres. How could you ever know when it was coming, the kid’s date with paradise?

I asked Azlan how old they were.


‘The suicide bombers at the palace.’

‘No information yet,’ he said. ‘They all died.’ I was thinking about the bomb-carriers and the water-carriers as we tried to find the school. There was white writing on the hills. Apparently it said: ‘Praise to Allah.’ The shops seemed to know about beauty routines, if not about children, and I wondered why the extremists didn’t mind the alluring images of women. ‘The weird thing,’ Azlan said, ‘is those balloon-sellers. They’re everywhere. Have you noticed them around town?’

I had noticed them, men carrying huge Disney helium balloons by their strings. You saw them being sold everywhere in Kabul but you never saw a child with one.

‘That’s the puzzle,’ Azlan said.

Good news glitters in hard places. You can scarcely count the losses suffered in Afghanistan or guess at the new losses being planned by some. Yet since the interim government was created in 2002, children have gained access to thousands of schools and today there are 8.3 million pupils, 40 per cent of them girls. (That’s a 650 per cent increase in ten years.) At the top of the stairs at Sherino High School there is a large portrait of an old girl who became a poet. The school has 121 teachers, all female. We looked in many of the classrooms – in one of them the girls were learning about magnets. A girl told me there was no ‘poisoning’ at the school. Later I stopped to ask her what she meant.

‘Some people in the community do not want girls to be educated,’ she said, ‘and in some schools they poisoned the drinking water and girls died.’

‘They died?’

‘We don’t have that here.’ It seems such incidents have been prevalent for some time, especially in the north, where hundreds of schoolgirls had been subject to attacks involving contaminated water and poison gas. At Sherino High School the students believe everything can change. Shabnam, who’s 17, was described by one of her teachers as the brightest girl in the whole school. She told me she gets up at dawn and comes in as early as possible every day. One of the reasons is the wonderful facilities they have, the classrooms, the computers, and most of all the sanitation. Shabnam’s father is a car dealer and she recently won a competition to write the best business plan. It was about how to buy oil in her home town of Mazar and sell it at a profit.

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