MINGORA, Pakistan — As normalcy returns to Pakistan's scenic Swat valley after a major army operation to oust Taliban extremists, local parents are coming forward with a chilling revelation: The Pakistani Taliban abducted around 100 children to be trained as suicide bombers.
According to the Pakistani army, the children, who were often forcibly taken from their homes, have been brought in by their families or arrested by security forces. The army paraded a half-dozen boys, who appeared to be between 13 and 16 years old, in front of the local media on Sunday. One unnamed boy, crying, pleaded: "You should feel for us as you do for your own children."
"We're finding a lot of children who have been trained, brainwashed, told even that if your parents get in the way, you must finish them," said Brigadier Tahir Hameed, the operational commander for the Mingora area, speaking at army headquarters in the city, which the Taliban besieged for a month.
Videos that were being sold in Mingora when the Taliban were in control showed many teenage boys being trained for suicide attacks. The videos would climax by showing them embrace their adult tutors before climbing into vehicles, which were then filmed driving into their targets — often military checkpoints — and detonating, all to a sound track of hypnotic jihadist songs.
The army is setting up a rehabilitation center for the children and is planning to provide a course for them at a fort in the region.
Lt. Col. Aktar Abbas said the length of the rehabilitation course would vary for each child, depending on "how far that boy has gone." The army will fund the residential program and provide accommodations, educational facilities and psychologists, he said.
"They (the children) have been through great trauma. They were picked up from their homes by the Taliban," said Abbas. "Some found their way back to their parents, some were found and arrested during the operation."
Other residents of Swat, just 100 miles north of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, are finding the way home choked with traffic. Old cars, brightly colored buses and trucks form long lines daily to get into the city.
They're loaded with people and their possessions — beds, electric fans and tents tied on the roofs with rope — with women and children often perched precariously on top. It's a bittersweet homecoming for many residents, who find their homes and shops looted, and especially for laborers, who're uncertain they can find employment again.
People in the Swat valley are daring to play music again, but many remain concerned that the Taliban will make a comeback. The headless body of a police officer, discovered Tuesday in an area where government security forces are present, confirmed that the militants remain a threat.
Some 2 million people fled Swat and the adjacent districts of Buner and Dir at the start of May, as the army took on the Taliban in a U.S.-backed offensive. The government started a vast return program on July 13. By Monday, 81,901 families — some 575,000 individuals — had returned.
"We saw banners saying that the people of Swat will go back to heaven, but when we got here, we found the door closed," said Khan Rehman, a 50-year-old who was squatting in an empty office building with several hundred others on the outskirts of Mingora.
Rehman said that local officials had ordered his family to leave the school where they were living in Swabi, a town southeast of Swat, because it had to be cleaned for the next semester. Rehman's home in Kanju, however, is still off-limits because the army is still "mopping up" Taliban and de-mining the area.
Residents of Kanju, just across the river from Mingora, are now occupying empty buildings in the Nowakilla neighborhood without running water, food or government assistance. Many have been there for 10 days.
In another corner of Nowakilla, though, young men gathered in a "batek," a traditional room for men to socialize, where they were playing cards, listening to a music cassette, joking with each other and preparing fishing equipment for a trip to the nearby river.
Sahibzada, a 20-year-old who goes by only one name, pointed out the bullet marks on the wall of the batek. He said the Taliban had banned them from using the room, as they considered such leisure activities un-Islamic.
"Let alone being able to play music, we couldn't even talk freely (under the Taliban)," said Sahibzada. "The Taliban even said that fishing was a sin. Now, normalcy is coming back quickly."
In a further sign of normalcy, schools are due to re-open next week, and the students at the 200 schools blown up by the Taliban will attend class in tents or temporary buildings.
In Mingora's Green Square, dubbed "Bloody Square," the crossroads in the middle of the city where the Taliban used to behead people — government employees, those living "immoral" lives, anyone who criticized the extremists — a music stall is back in business.
"When the Taliban were here, I used to sell Islamic tapes," said music stall owner Shaukat Iqbal, 40, whose shelves are filled with the Indian film music and songs in the regional Pashto language. "If the Taliban come again, I will go back to the Islamic tapes. There's no guarantee that they won't come back."
At his shoe shop in Green Square, surrounded by buildings that were badly damaged in the military operation, Abdul Jameel, 31, said that business was roughly doubling each day as more people returned.
"There is zero presence of Taliban in Mingora, but still people are afraid. They just come quickly to buy what's essential," said Jameel, whose home was looted of everything down to children's toys. "People fear that, if the army goes, it will be the turn of the Taliban again. It's a circle."
The Taliban leadership in Swat, including its chief Mullah Fazlullah, remain at large. His blood-curdling voice has returned to his radio station in recent days, when he promised a resurgence. The army said it captured two Toyota trucks that Fazullah uses but just missed him in the darkness a few nights ago.
In Mingora, the army, paramilitary and police maintain a huge presence on street corners, on patrol in armored personnel carriers and in sandbagged positions on rooftops. Authorities have begun relaxing the curfew over the city, but still impose it at 6 p.m. each evening until the next morning.
The people of Swat are profoundly cynical about the army after two previous half-hearted operations that left the Taliban in control. This time, the scale of the offensive appeared to have convinced most that this time the army was serious.
"This area was 100 percent under Taliban control," said Ikram Qadir, 23, walking around his neighborhood of Landikas in the middle of the city. "Now in Mingora, one leaf cannot move without the army's permission."
Still, there are rumors, which the army denies, that yet another deal could be done with Fazlullah.
"No dialogue, no truce, only elimination," said Ziauddin Yusufzai, a school principal in Mingora. "We will not accept any kind of peace deal. If they (the army) do it this time, they'll lose this country."
The army commander Hameed told McClatchy that the Taliban remain in "small pockets" and the operation would go on "while terrorism continues." He said that progress now depends on the willingness of returning residents to tell the authorities about the presence of Taliban remnants in their area. In the past, people have been too terrified of reprisals to inform.
"If people co-operate, I think this will finish soon," Hameed said. "It depends on society standing on its own feet."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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