MINGORA, Pakistan – In a voice barely above a whisper, I.H. stared at his feet as he recounted haltingly how the Taliban kidnapped him and a classmate as they played in the street. They cleaned dishes for a few days in a militant training camp in northern Pakistan before escaping during Friday prayers, he said.
The Pakistani army says it has so far found 20 boys like I.H., who is only being identified by his initials for his safety, in the battle-scarred Swat Valley, scene of a major offensive against the Taliban this spring.
They believe the Taliban hoped to turn the boys into informants, fighters or even suicide bombers. Some escaped, others were rescued by authorities. Maj. Nasir Khan said many more are believed to be in the hands of militants.
Eleven such boys — the youngest only about 7 years old — were presented to journalists Monday at a military base in Swat's main town of Mingora.
The Taliban have been known to use children as fighters before in Afghanistan, and the army seems keen to capitalize on the boys' capture, hoping their stories will help turn public opinion against the militants.
The spring offensive in Swat — to clear the region of militants after they flouted a peace deal and expanded their area of control — was relatively popular in Pakistan. The government now hopes to extend its grip on Swat to prevent the likely hiding in the mountains from mounting their own counteroffensive to regain control of the strategic area.
The U.S. sees Pakistan's ability to take on the Taliban as key to its own troops' success across the border in Afghanistan. But some Pakistanis support the Taliban, especially in the lawless tribal areas that border Afghanistan, and the army's military campaign against them also has involved public relations battles.
Taliban spokesman Maulvi Omar could not be reached for comment on the militants' use of children.
The boys on Monday said they had spent time in training camps — though how long was unclear. They themselves mostly said just a few days, but the army said they were probably with the Taliban for a month or more.
Three of the boys appeared to be younger than 10 and were visibly traumatized, occasionally breaking down in tears. The others were mostly in their mid-teens. Of the six who spoke to the AP, most said they were made to clean dishes or undergo rigorous physical training. None said he had been trained to carry out a suicide attack.
Feriha Peracha, a clinical neuropsychologist called in by the army to assess the boys, said some of them were clearly depressed and traumatized. However, she said it was unlikely all had been kidnapped as they claimed.
"It's only one or two maximum out of this group that I would say was probably actually taken by force," Peracha said.
The Taliban have been known to persuade boys to join their ranks or even paid impoverished families to hand over a young future fighter, Khan said.
"They are like the Mafia. Some children are inspired by them. They command respect because people are afraid of them," he said.
Peracha said most of the boys she interviewed tested below average on intelligence tests and came from poor families, which may have made them easy targets for the militants. One displayed psychotic symptoms.
I.H., who said he's 12 but looks much younger, said he was snatched off the streets and driven to a training camp.
"We were just playing" in the village when a car drove up, he said. "They blindfolded us."
B.K., a 15-year-old from Mingora, said he was lured into a car.
"They took me to a mountain place that was a training center" where he and other boys were woken before dawn for prayers, followed by strenuous physical exercise, he said.
"I was told that I would be trained for jihad to fight against the army and to kill soldiers," he said, adding that there were another 50 to 60 boys at the camp. He said an uncle managed to negotiate his release.
M.K., a 16-year-old who already had some gray hair, said he was returning home after buying groceries when a car pulled up and offered him a lift. But when they reached the turn for his house, the bearded men in the car gagged and blindfolded him, and drove him to a training camp where there were about 250 other boys, aged between 12 and 18.
"They told us jihad (holy war) is the duty of every Muslim," M.K. said. He said he was told it was OK to kill your parents if they disagreed.
"I was shocked. I was thinking, how can someone kill their parents?" the boy said, his voice barely audible.
Khan said that once the boys are picked up by the army, they are questioned before they are allowed to return home.
Army officials took blood and hair samples from the boys Monday, to run DNA tests and to check whether any of them had been drugged while they were in the training camps.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Akthar Abbas said it's clear some of the boys were being trained as fighters or worse.
"They were being trained as suicide bombers. There is fear still at the back of their minds," he said.
Abbas said they are setting up a rehabilitation program for the boys to provide them with education and psychotherapy.
"We will try to convert them as useful society members."