Abducted innocence: Boy lured by Taliban, now held as slave

LAHORE, Pakistan — Faisal Rahman pushed through the streets, looking for his boys.

It was just after sunup. The crowds in Lahore were already hot and unruly. His two sons, Bahram, 16, and Moona, 12, worked at a tea cart, putting little white cups on little cracked saucers and serving boiling-hot tea.

But when he got there, Bahram was gone.

Faisal Rahman sat for a moment with Moona and sipped tea.

When he returned to the tea cart in the afternoon, Bahram still had not come.

"I don't know where he is," Moona said.

Then, Faisal Rahman would remember later, he heard men talking excitedly in an alley. He moved closer and leaned against a tree to hear. The men were from his village.

"The boys left today," he heard a tall man say. "They went to fight the infidels. They went with a mullah who took them to Afghanistan."

Someone else blew a kiss into the air. "Congratulations!" he said to the tall man. "Your son is now a Taliban! It was his fate, his kismet. Blessed that kismet!"

Faisal Rahman listened. He did not want to talk. Something inside him had broken.

Long, empty days

For boys from a poor village, the mullah's message was a call too spellbinding to ignore.

Faisal Rahman is from Gunbat Banda, a village near the Afghan border where mountain peaks cut white teeth into the sky and the hillsides are sown with wheat and rice. It is in the northwestern corner of Pakistan, and most of its people are Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in southern Afghanistan that brought the Taliban to power six years ago.

Once Rahman had a farm in Gunbat Banda, but a drought baked his soil hard as stone.

He left with his two sons and found work as a mosque watchman in the city of Lahore, 300 miles away. For the boys, this meant no school, no dreams, only countless cups of tea and the steady ticking of time.

Sometimes his sons would return to visit their mother. Just the other day, for instance, Bahram had asked if he could go.

Fine, Rahman recalls saying, but be back soon.

The day after he found out about the boys joining the Taliban, he stuffed a few things into a cloth sack and took the long bus ride home.

His wife, Zarina, was waiting for him in their hut, made of rock and perched on the side of a hill.

"Faisal, Faisal," she remembers telling him. "We tried to convince Bahram not to go. We told him he would get killed."

She cried as if Bahram were already dead.

The recruitment

Faisal Rahman is 55 and has a white beard, exhausted blue eyes and a goiter that swells under his chin.

He walked down the hill to where the elders meet. Mohammed Razzaq pressed his hand to Rahman's heart, a Pashtun greeting. He told Faisal Rahman about the spellbinder.

A mullah, Sufi Mohammed, had recruited them in November to fight the invaders who came to Afghanistan after the attacks in the United States. He used loudspeakers riveted onto pickup trucks to blast his message.

"Those who die fighting for God don't die! Those who go on jihad live forever, in paradise!"

The boys weren't madrasa students, primed for holy war. These were simple boys, farm boys, illiterate and poor. "They were unsatisfied with life," Razzaq said.

About 500 went. Some brought knives. They declared that they were ready to die for their Pashtun brothers, the Taliban.

Some were as young as 12.

They were taken in trucks to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, to the Sultan Razia girls school, which had been converted into an army barracks.

It was Nov. 8, and the Northern Alliance had finally broken through Taliban lines south of Mazar-e-Sharif. Nine thousand Northern Alliance soldiers, under a sky full of U.S. jets, were advancing toward town, and the Taliban had gone into full retreat.

By the next evening, when the Northern Alliance troops entered Mazar-e-Sharif, all of the Taliban had escaped — except 750 recruits, including the boys from Gunbat Banda.

"We heard one Taliban commander radio to another: 'What should we do about the newcomers in the school? They're trapped,' " remembers Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the Northern Alliance leaders.

"The other commander radioed back: 'Forget about them.' "

Bahram later would recall that he and the others were jammed together in classrooms on the first floor. About 9 p.m., the sky cracked open with gunfire. Red tracer bullets arced toward the moon. The walls groaned from heavy explosions.

Many of the boys cheered. They yelled that the Taliban were attacking U.S. planes. Some crouched under the windows and pointed their rifle barrels outward. But one boy looked terrified, Bahram related. "He said, 'No, those weren't Taliban bullets. It's the people in the city, celebrating.' He told us it was the end."

'Never Surrender'

At dawn, the boys saw that more than 400 Northern Alliance soldiers had surrounded the school. All night, they had not heard a word from any of their Taliban commanders.

The boys called a shura, a meeting. One proposed a "Hudaibiya Pact," a treaty similar to one in the Quran in which Muhammad makes peace with the Quraysh tribe in Mecca.

But a man with a white beard didn't like that, Bahram said. He asked the boy if he really was on a jihad. "He pulled out a knife, and his eyes got big, and he said he would slit the boy's throat right there and wash the floors with his blood.

"The boy stopped talking."

When the recruits refused to surrender, the Northern Alliance began hammering the school with .50-caliber machine guns. The recruits shot back. Several bystanders were cut down in the cross fire, which went on for hours. Inside the battered school, some of the boys scrawled on the walls the words of their mullah: "Die for Pakistan" and "Never Surrender."

At midafternoon, U.S. military advisers approved the school for a bombing run. "We had determined the school was an appropriate target," said Army Col. Rick Thomas of the U.S. Central Command. "Our philosophy has been surrender or die."

At 3:30 p.m., an F/A-18 jet dropped a 1,000-pound bomb on the west end of the school, Thomas said, and three minutes later another bomb fell.

The roof crashed down. Black smoke boiled up. Burning boys ran out screaming. Some had pieces of twisted metal sticking out of their chests.

"May God never show us such things again," said Amin Mohammed, a neighbor, who later helped round up at least 200 of the boys. Some were bleeding to death.

Bahram ran outside and hid in a pile of sticks. An hour later, the Northern Alliance troops captured him.

Into slavery

In Sheberghan, two hours east of Mazar-e-Sharif, was a prison, a former medieval fortress with huge, mud walls and long, frightening hallways, where men thrust their arms through bars and shook dirty plastic buckets. 'Aab, aab," they moaned — "Water, water."

The place smelled of sweat, urine and rotting flesh. Some of the captives picked crawling lice out of their hair and flicked them through the bars.

But none of the prisoners was from the girls school.

Northern Alliance commanders had different explanations. One said all the boys were killed instantly in the bombing. Another said a few survived but died of their wounds. A jailer spoke of a "road accident" that claimed 43 prisoners' lives.

Finally, a young Northern Alliance commander, Sayed Zahir, said some of the Pakistani recruits were alive.

They were being held as slaves, he said. "I know where one is."

Bahram located

Zahir and three of his men drove to a cinder-block house with a blue metal gate at the edge of Mazar-e-Sharif, in a place called Dasht-e-Shardian, which means "the desert of happy people."

At first, soldiers would not bring the prisoner out. They said he was too frightened. Then they said their commander was out of town and would be angry.

Nonsense, Zahir replied. He glanced at his men, standing behind him with guns.

The soldiers brought out Bahram.

They sat him in the middle of a bald little room with concrete walls and a smoking stove that put out a thin circle of heat.

He looked horrible. He had on a filthy "shalwar kameez," worn and ghost-thin. His arms were crisscrossed with cuts. His big, dark eyes were glassy. His hands shook. He kept wiping away tears.

Where was he from? How had he been captured?

How old was he?

"Don't hurt!" he cried. "Don't hurt!"

After some reassurances, he stopped staring at the floor and began to speak of Faisal Rahman, his father, who swept the floors of a mosque in Lahore; Zarina, his mother; Moona, his younger brother, and how they had worked together at the tea cart. He spoke of his journey over the mountains into Afghanistan and of the other boys and of the girls school — all in broken, breathless sentences.

Finally, he spoke of the bombing. And the fire.

The soldiers said it was time to go. He seemed sad. Before he disappeared down a frosty hallway, he looked back and said, "I have never seen such days as these."

There was no help. A man at the Red Cross in Mazar-e-Sharif listened closely. When he heard about the puffy cuts on Bahram's arms, he closed his eyes. "There's little we can do," he said. "The Red Cross has to be careful not to alienate itself from the factions we work with."

A United Nations human-rights officer said the same.

So did a U.S. soldier at a post the Army keeps in Mazar-e-Sharif, mostly for humanitarian projects such as fixing generators and passing out soccer balls. He said, "Sounds bad. But not our problem."

A Northern Alliance security official said he, too, was helpless. "It's wrong what they're doing," Shajaudin said, as he lighted a clove cigarette. He said Bahram was being held in a private jail by a local commander. "We can ask him to release the boy, but we can't make him, because that could cause trouble."

Shajaudin said at least 1,500 prisoners, mostly boys, were being held in private jails.

Could it be that Bahram was being sexually abused?

"It is a custom," Shajaudin declared, blowing a ring of sweet-smelling smoke around his head. "With boys that age, before they have hair on the faces, these things happen."

Ransom and rape

"Allah, Allah, Allah," Faisal Rahman prayed, when he saw the picture of his boy.

At the mosque in Lahore, he recounted the morning that Bahram disappeared. Then he reached into a pocket and pulled out a 5-inch square of notebook paper.

It was a ransom demand.

A newly released prisoner named Jimshade had brought it in January. The note listed numbers to call and people to ask for. There was a figure at the bottom: 125,000 rupees, about $2,100.

"Sometimes," Rahman said, "I wish Bahram had been martyred."

Jimshade, who lives in Gunbat Banda, said he too was a follower of the mullah Sufi Mohammed. He said he had gone to the girls school in Mazar-e-Sharif and was captured. He spent six weeks as a slave, he said, before his family bought his freedom for the equivalent of $1,100.

"The soldiers do things to you," he said, "that make you want to kill yourself.

"They have this game — they think they are so clever for thinking it all up — they call 'keel,' " which means "nail."

"They start with the youngest prisoners and ask them their age," he continued. "If a boy says 13, they send 13 soldiers to him. If he says 16, the boy gets 16."

The soldiers take turns raping the boys, Jimshade said. "They take them to an underground room and hold the boys down, and the whole house fills with screaming, and the soldiers yell louder than the screaming, like they are mad or crazy or have turned into wild animals: 'Keel! Keel!'

"Sometimes," he said, his voice shrinking, "I still hear them."

34 years to freedom

Faisal Rahman, a watchman living under a blanket on the roof of a mosque with a bar of yellow soap and a little jug of water, has been trying to save 10 rupees a day to free his son. At that rate, it would take him 34 years.

The elders would say it was a sign from God.

In early April, planting season, Bahram's mother, Zarina, was sitting outside her rock hut in Gunbat Banda. She looked at the picture.

"Bahram! Bahram! Bahram!" she cried.

The hut was filled with dark eyes watching — aunts, uncles, cousins.

"They all ask me where he went," Bahram's mother said. "I told him, 'You don't have any money. You've never put a gun in your hands. Your father is not here.' But he wouldn't listen."

Village elders came. They brought little pieces of paper with a name on each. Find my son, please, the notes asked.

There are a hundred Bahrams here, Mohammed Razzaq said. "They aren't terrorists. They are uneducated children who listened to a mullah give them the concept of heaven and hell.

"He deceived them, under the name of Islam."

While the elders were shaking their heads, Faisal Rahman pulled out a picture of Bahram. The elders admired it in silence.

"You are trying hard, Faisal," Razzaq said finally. "But all this has been written, written by God."

As Faisal Rahman walked away, he spun his hand up and pointed toward the sky, as if to say, heaven knows what will happen and heaven is on my side. Inshallah. God willing.

On Nov. 19, 2001, Sufi Mohammed, the mullah who had recruited Bahram and the other boys from Gunbat Banda, was arrested by Pakistani authorities, along with 29 followers, near the Afghan border. He was sent to prison for seven years for carrying lethal arms and entering Pakistan illegally.

Bahram remains in captivity.