Saturday, August 2, 2014

“The Soldier,” by Shaheen Salahuddin

Taliban child soldiers in training

It was already 9 a.m. when I woke up with a headache.  I toyed between going down for breakfast and just staying in bed. Going into my office at the TV station was out of the question. The events of the day before had sapped all my energies.

I wanted to cry but something just blocked my emotions. Of course I was upset. Who would not be?  Ali my house boy, who was like a son, had died in a suicide blast outside the school gate, five miles from home.

Although he had been with us for less than six months, he had become a member of the family, and I had tried my best to be a mother to him.

He was a delight to have around. Anything that I had misplaced or was looking for, he would find it. He knew where I kept things and understood my forgetfulness. For my boys he was a companion, and when it came to mischief, he was a partner in crime. They always invited him to play cricket and he was content to play the field allowing them all the turns at batting and bowling.

Child suicide bomber caught by Pakistani army
I was anxious about the impending visit of the Police Inspector who wanted to question me for their ongoing investigation. I got more and more confused.

Was Ali involved in the blast? Did he know the suicide attacker? Or was he is just an innocent victim? I didn’t know.

Why had Ali selected that moment to go out? Was there any connivance between the Ali and the bomber? I had lots of questions, as a good journalist should, but no answers.

The doorbell rang, and I told my maid Sofia to let the officer in.

 Ali was a fifteen year old kid, who had come to Karachi from Swat to work and study, because the law and order situation in his home city was deteriorating.  Taliban terrorists were abducting school children and destroying schools in the name of religion.

Ali was a dynamic young man, full of energy, hope and love for his country, and he wanted to become a soldier one day. He did not want to leave his home but had no choice. So he arrived in Karachi to earn a living and study. Perhaps also to try to support his aging father and ailing mother. But he was a thousand miles away from his home in the Swat Valley, and for Ali, the Swat Valley was the closest thing to heaven.

One evening while putting the cricket paraphernalia in the closet, he saw me watching a documentary on TV about Swat. He got upset and said, “Why do these Taliban want to make our heaven into hell?”

Child soldier
photographed by Steve McCurry
He waited for an answer but I avoided entering into a discussion and continued concentrating on the TV documentary.

“You know,” he continued, “our valley used to have tourists from around the world. Our women used to make embroidered shawls to sell to them. We have sparkling streams, placid lakes and majestic mountains. Tourism was a source of income in our heaven. I wonder from where these Satan have come.”

He became increasingly agitated. “They have destroyed hundreds of schools and killed our brothers, and they have the audacity to say they are doing it for Islam. This is not what Islam teaches us, is it?” ” he asked and looked at my face for assurance.

“Of course not.” I calmed him down with an assertive voice. “Killing one person is like killing the whole of humanity.”

Ali paused, then bit his nail for few seconds, and asked, “Then why do they do this?”

I didn’t want to enter into a philosophical debate, so my answer was the usual one: “They are ill-informed, ignorant terrorists, who have no idea what religion is.”

Then, as I was in no mood to be disturbed again and again, I asked him to go and have his dinner and returned my attention to the TV.

While leaving the room he bowled a last bouncer toward me: “But why do they get seventy virgins in paradise?”

Astonished and upset at such a question, I looked toward him but by then he had left. But his question made me wonder: a generation that thinks life begins after death – why would they care about improving things here on earth?

Hussam Abdo, 15-year-old suicide bomber,
saved by Israeli soldiers
The next day as I was working in the kitchen before going to my office, I noticed that Ali looked disturbed as he tidied up.  

“I want to tell you the truth,” he said.

“About what?”

“You know why I left my school and the valley.”

“Yes, I know. You left because of the law and order situation. You could not have worked or studied there.”

Then he revealed one more chapter to his story. He said that the Taliban were frequent visitors to his school and had kidnapped a few of his schoolmates, including his best friend Akbar Khan, and they had trained Akbar as a suicide bomber.

“Are you sure he was a suicide bomber?” I asked, my journalist’s instinct kicking in.

“Yes, I know because he told me.” There was tension on his face as Ali explained how his friend Akbar had met him near his house one day and invited him to join the brigade of suicide bombers. Akbar had told Ali that this was the quickest route to paradise, and there God would reward each soldier with seventy virgins. On the other hand if Ali refused the Taliban’s offer, they would kill him.

That very evening Ali’s parents sent him to Karachi, many miles away from his home city. Ali was often concerned about his best friend and wondered whether he was still alive or not. For my part, I’d wondered who was going to save our new generation, which seemed more eager to die than to live.

Taliban suicide bomber
rescued by Afghan Government
Sofia, my maid, knocked at the door and disrupted my thoughts. I knew I had to go downstairs because the police officers had been waiting for some time. I was not eager to see them. When our Pakistani police can’t resolve a problem they can be awkward. Instead of finding the culprit they harass the innocent.

As I entered the living room, I saw two policemen in uniform sitting comfortably on the sofa. One of them introduced himself as the chief investigating officer.

 “Madam I am very sorry about what happened,” he began.

“So what is the truth?” I asked in an expressionless tone.

 “Madam, he was a great guy,” the officer said. “The investigation so far reveals that the suicide bomber was somebody Ali knew. Forensic reports and an ID card confirm the name of the terrorist as Akbar Khan from the Swat Valley.

“According to the eye witness account,” the police officer continued in a sober voice, “Ali went towards the would-be bomber who was in a school uniform and was standing outside a school, just a few minutes before the end of the school day. After a conversation which turned into a squabble, then a fight, the suicide bomber blew himself up.

“But as the school hadn’t let out yet, the lives of hundreds of students were saved.  Ali is a true hero and acted like a soldier. The government and police have announced reward of half a million rupees for his act of bravery.”

I kept quiet, although I wanted to berate him. We have innocent children sacrificing their lives to protect others, I wanted to scream, while the police … only carry out investigations.

Ali got what he wanted. Every politician and media addressed him as a true soldier and a saviour of mankind, and half a million rupees in reward money would alleviate his father’s financial burdens. But which fifteen-year-old got seventy virgins in heaven, Ali or his best friend?

I know, but do the Taliban?
Shaheen Salahuddin, a Senior Anchor/Journalist for the last 20 years, headed the first private news channel in Pakistan. She has over three thousand TV talk shows to her credit. Originally from Karachi, Pakistan, she now lives in Toronto Canada.

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