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What happens when child suicide bombers leave prison?

Visitors at Badam Bagh juvenile detention center in Kabul. Afghan children as young as 8 have been imprisoned after being caught preparing suicide attacks.
Visitors at Badam Bagh juvenile detention center in Kabul. Afghan children as young as 8 have been imprisoned after being caught preparing suicide attacks.(Kiana Hayeri/The New York Times)

KABUL — The 14-year-old boy squatted on the floor of the prison and, unbidden, began to chant the verses of a Pashto poem in a high, beautiful voice. It was an a cappella elegy in which a prisoner implores his family not to visit him on the Muslim holiday of Eid.

And do not come to us for Eid, for we are not free to welcome you.

I don’t want you to look at my chest, for there are no buttons on my shirt.

Don’t come to this asylum, for we are all lunatics in here.

The boy’s name was Muslim, and he was among 47 boys being held in the Badam Bagh juvenile detention center in Kabul as national security threats. Most were charged with planting, carrying, or wearing bombs, and many of them, like Muslim, were accused of trying to become suicide bombers.

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None of Muslim’s family visited him during Eid last summer. “They are angry with me,” he said. “I don’t blame them.”

For authorities, children like him present a conundrum: what to do with them when they finish their sentences, which often range from two to 10 years. Many will be released just as they reach adulthood, when they are even more capable of causing mayhem.

The Afghan Ministry of Justice arranged for a reporter to visit the prison last August at the request of The New York Times. Because of their youth, the boys in this article are identified only by their first names, and then only names that are commonly used in Afghanistan. Only those boys who agreed to participate in the interviews did so, and a ministry official and a counselor were present.

The boys in what Badam Bagh officials call the suicide bombers wing ranged in age from 12 to 17. Their cases were in various stages; some had been convicted and were serving their sentences, while others were awaiting trial.

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They shared one complaint: As far as they were concerned, there were no suicide bombers in the suicide bombers wing.

Muslim, who is eastern Afghanistan, said he was only a Taliban conscript.

“I am not a suicider,” he said. “The Taliban made me fight for them.” But then he added, with a smirk, “In prison, everyone lies.”

Aminullah, 14, had been in jail for 16 months. At age 13, he was caught with a bag full of explosives and a phone full of messages from the Taliban urging him to kill Americans.

“The local police beat me to force me to confess,” he said.

Atiqullah, 16, had been in jail for seven months after setting off a bomb that killed six people and wounded eight. Police said that Atiqullah’s life had been spared when the bomb detonated prematurely.

“I did it,” he said. “But I wasn’t a suicider.”

Those charged with suicide bombing offenses are segregated from the almost 700 other children in Badam Bagh. “We can’t have these children together with others, or they export their extremism and infect other kids,” said Abdul Baseer Anwar, the Afghan minister of justice. “Otherwise they go in a thief and come out a suicide bomber.”

Suicide bombings are endemic in Afghanistan. In 2017, according to reports compiled by The Times, there were at least 67 suicide attacks in the country, involving at least 151 suicide attackers.

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Anwar said that sentences for child offenders were often lenient because of their ages, but that the ministry lacked funding and facilities to provide them with support to steer them away from extremism.

“The majority of them when they’re released go back to fighting against the government,” he said.