Srinagar, India, Asharq Al-Awsat- An alarming trend is emerging in Kashmir as militant groups are increasingly using children as soldiers in the fight against the Indian Army.
Along the border separating Indian- held Kashmir from the Pakistani side, boys as young as 13 and 14 carrying deadly weapons have been arrested by the Indian security services. In the last year alone, 24 children were apprehended.
Questioned, the young men revealed they had been indoctrinated at madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan and were forced to cross into Indian territory after undergoing basic military training.
Mohd Latif, aged 14, originally from Karachi in Pakistan stated he was selected from a religious school where he was studying and received military training at a camp where songs extolling the virtues of jihad (holy struggle) were played during military exercises.
Another boy, Mohd Islam, aged 13, from Sihota in Pakistan , was captured along the Line of Control that runs through Kashmir . He denied being told of the dangers of crossing the border or knowing an electric fence separated the two sides.
“We were simply pushed to this side and forced to fight the Indian army,” Islam said.
Javed Maqdoomi, Srinagar police chief told Asharq al Awsat the impressionable young men were selected from religious schools and taught in military camps run by Laskhar and Hizbul Mujahideen across Pakistan.
Intelligence sources revealed that Islamic militant groups have stepped up their recruitment of children for operations in Kashmir as they face a shortage of fighters, with the Indian army killing over 550-armed men so far this year.
As local support for the militants decreases, children are increasingly being pushed to take part in armed conflict and, in some cases, face an early death. Young men also evade suspicion and are better equipped to cross the fence without being noticed.
In addition, Maqdoomi said, Pakistan was using children to carry out reconnaissance missions inside Indian Territory with more than 30 captured in border areas in the last three months. Less often, children are recruited from inside Kashmir and receive rudimentary military training; they work as cooks, cleaners, porters, and guides.
Ishfaq Bhat, aged 13, was hiding out in the Tangdhar Mountains in Kashmir with a Kalashnikov rifle slung over his narrow shoulders when he was discovered by an Indian army patrol.
An estimated 500 children have been reported missing in Kashmir this year alone.
Commenting on what motivates adolescents to leave their homes and take up arms, Khalid Madni, police deputy superintendent of Bandipora, said, “I’ve come across cases where Pakistani terrorists in the mountains gave kids 500 Pakistani Rupees (8 USD), asked them to buy cigarettes or batteries with it and allowed them to keep the change. Romance, escape from school, money, what more could a child desire?”
Twelve-year old Altaf Husain, recruited by Lashkar e- Taiba
in Pakistan, was rescued with ten other young fighters in their hideout.
Recounting his experience, he said, “We used to wash dishes, gather firewood, and cook food.” He indicated that many children were also sexually abused and any attempt at escaping would result in physical punishment.
While increasing, the recruitment of adolescents is not an entirely new phenomenon with a number of young fighters caught throwing grenades at the Indian security forces.
“In the early 1990s,” said Maqdoomi, “a handful of children were involved. Last year we knew of a 100 recruited by the militants and hidden in the mountains. 2005 has not yet ended and the number has already quadrupled.”