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THE UNTOLD WAR

Prisoner of Jihad

A Boy's Journey to Afghanistan Leads a Father to Despair

July 21, 2002|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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, a beautiful boy with huge brown eyes, and sipped some tea.

The old man spilled one mouthful at a time onto the saucer, where it would cool quickly, so he could slurp from the little plate and savor the delicious coating left on his tongue. It tasted like creamy candy.

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, like the little saucer in his hand.

*

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 Pushtuns, 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, on long, empty afternoons, Faisal Rahman would take his boys to a juice bar and buy them cool banana shakes with what little money he had.

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.

Rahman hugged her, but the pain was squeezing his chest too.

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

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

"Faisal, they have left," Razzaq said. "God has sent our boys away. Yours too. We can only hope they return, inshallah," which means "God willing."

A mullah, Sufi Mohammed, had recruited them in November to fight the invaders who came to Afghanistan after the terrorist 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 Pushtun brothers, the Taliban.

Some were as young as 12.

*

Trapped and Under Siege

In the end, there would be no escape.

They were taken in trucks to the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, to the Sultan Razia girls school, which had been converted into an army barracks. It is in a very poor neighborhood, where women in muddy burkas peer from doorways and children play along the road in slime-green ditches.

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

By the next evening, when the Northern Alliance troops entered Mazar-i-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.' "

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