Two children — an Afghan girl sent to kill herself, and a Pakistani who sacrificed himself to save others — have become two unfortunate, but newly famous victims of terrorism.
Afghanistan was stunned this week by the story of a 10-year-old girl known only as Spozhmai, who told police that her brother, a local Taliban commander, gave her a suicide vest and ordered to attack a police station. Police intervened after she resisted the plan and her brother escaped with the vest.
Even more shocking is that the girl says she was told that the vest would only kill her targets, but that she would survive the explosion. She talked about it with reporters below:
The tactic is one commonly used by terrorists to convince children to participate in attacks. In a 2012 report on child suicide bombers published by the Telegraph, author Ben Farmer explains that extremists value children, who are less likely to raise suspicion or be searched at checkpoints, and tell young recruits that their religious convictions will protect them during attacks:
The largely illiterate boys are fed a diet of anti-Western and anti-Afghan government propaganda until they are prepared to kill, he said. But the boys are also assured that they will miraculously survive the devastation they cause. "The worst part is that these children don't think that they are killing themselves," said the official. "They are often given an amulet containing Koranic verses. Mullahs tell them, 'When this explodes you will survive and God will help you survive the fire. Only the infidels will be killed, you will be saved and your parents will go to paradise'."
One boy, Abdul Samat, about 13, who decided not to follow through on an attack at the last minute recalled what happened when he changed course:
When I opened my eyes, I saw it was a very black thing they wanted me to do... I began to cry and shout. People came out of their houses and asked what was wrong. I showed them I had something in my vest. Then they were scared too and called the police who took the bombs off me.
Spozhmai backed out of her attack when her brother and his friend took her to a river she would have needed to cross to reach her destination. She began screaming because of the cold water, which attracted the attention of the police. Earlier reports claimed, the police removed the vest from the young girl, but the official story now says that her brother took the vest off and escaped with it. Their father has been arrested, and police are seeking the brother, but the Taliban denies having anything to do with it.
While Spozhmai survived her ordeal, another child gave his own life in a suicide bombing — but this time to stop an attack. Fifteen-year-old Aitzaz Hasan died in Pakistan on Monday after confronting a suicide bomber who had approached his school. Friends and relatives praised Hasan for saving dozens, if not hundreds of lives, according to the BBC:
The incident took place on Monday in Ibrahimzai, a Shia-dominated region of Hangu, in north-western Pakistan. There were almost 2,000 students in attendance at the time of the attack, media reports say. "My cousin sacrificed his life saving his school and hundreds of students and school fellows," his cousin Mudassar Hassan Bangish told the BBC's Aleem Maqbool. "The suicide bomber wanted to destroy the school and school students. It was my cousin who stopped him from this...destruction."
The Pakistani public has embraced Hasan as a martyr, and is urging the government to recognize his bravery with the nation's highest military honor. Many took to Twitter to express their appreciation and call for official acknowledgement of the young hero using the hashtags #onemillionaitzaz and #AitzazBraveheart:
Mr.PrimeMinister v the citizens believe that State of Pk must award Nishan-i-Haider to Pk's brave son Shaheed Aitezaz #onemillionaitzaz— Nasim Zehra (@NasimZehra) January 9, 2014
Hasan has been compared to Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old Pakistani activist who was shot in the head at close range by Taliban operatives in 2012. She was targeted for demanding equal education for girls, and has continued the cause after recovering from the injury.
Children like Spozhmai, Haisan, and Yousafzai must navigate through a world that is pervasive with terrorism, with very little support for their elders. Spozhai has requested to be placed in a new home following the incident, but officials are ignoring her request and may now send her back to the family that nearly got her killed. As evidence by angry tweets, the Pakistani government has been slow to recognize Hasan's bravery, and reportedly did not offer condolences to his family until Wednesday. Yousafzai was battling repressive government policies that bar girls from receiving an education when she was attacked by the Taliban, and had to flee the country to get the proper treatment. The activist, who has been globally embraced and was seen as a top contender for last year's Nobel Peace Prize, is not even fully welcome in her hometown.
Spozhmai's story shows how the Taliban in Afghanistan may start recruiting girl suicide bombers, a line it has not crossed until now. Her refusal to act, and Hasan's brave reaction to the threat of attack, indicate that it may be the most vulnerable targets who are left to publicize a culture ravaged by terrorism and their governments' failure to stem the violence.