Wed, Feb 29, 2012 - Page 4 News List

Pakistani school strives to beat the Taliban trap

ABUSE AND DRUGS:A boarding school for homeless, drug-addicted children in Peshawar is doing what it can to prevent them from falling prey to the Taliban

AP, Peshawar, Pakistan

The boy was two when his mother dumped him on the streets, four when he spent his first night in a tiny prison cell, being sexually assaulted by an older inmate. Prostitution for money and shelter followed, then hashish, and glue sniffing.

Now 10 and gangly, he fidgets and stares at the ground, speaking in a near-whisper.

“I’m ashamed,” he says.

Yet in the rugged frontier city of Peshawar in northwest Pakistan, where people carry guns as casually as they would a daily newspaper, this boy has hope. He has found refuge in what for Pakistan is relatively rare: a charity-run boarding school for homeless, drug-addicted children.

Around Peshawar, heroin sells for less than US$0.20 a high.

“It’s the cheapest place in the world to get heroin,” says Mazahar Ali, the school’s manager.

He gestures beyond the school’s high walls. Heroin and just about every other vice are just a short walk away, he says.

The drugs all come from nearby Afghanistan which, according to UN report last year, provides 90 percent of the world’s opium, from which heroin is made.

For Pakistan, the result is more than 4 million addicts. Some of the youngest end up in mud-walled rooms being drilled in extreme Muslim doctrine by the Taliban who roam relatively freely in Peshawar.

“Sometimes the militants take these children to North Waziristan and teach them to be suicide bombers and sometimes they give the children drugs and the child might not even know that he is going to be blown up,” Ali says.

At the school, a boy named Osama told of memorizing the Koran while the Taliban hovered over him. He said he was tortured. He escaped, and a month ago was found sleeping on the floor of a ramshackle hotel, said Umaima Zia, the school psychologist.

On the lawn in front of the four-story school, Osama sat cross-legged on a chair in the afternoon sun, his small body swaying as he recited Koranic verses to his fellow students in a lilting voice.

A single working woman aged 25, Zia is unusual in this conservative region where girls are often married off soon after puberty.

Quick to smile, she gently draws out the kids’ accounts of what they have endured. She brings stuffed animals to the school, and even the older boys cling to them. She gave the sexually assaulted boy a furry lion-shaped hat, which he rarely takes off except for prayers.

A while ago that child’s mother was found, but she would not take him back.

“She didn’t want me,” he muttered, almost inaudibly. “She said I was garbage.”

The Associated Press does not identify, in text or through images, persons who say they have been sexually assaulted.

Children generally stay three months at the boarding school, long enough to detox. Run by the Dost Foundation, a family-owned charity, it has 32 boarders, all boys. A separate facility for girls is planned, because mixing of the sexes in Pakistan is shunned. Zia told of finding one little girl knocking on car windows asking 50 rupees (US$0.60) to bare her chest to the occupants. She was six.

“It’s sad, so sad that there is nothing for girls here,” she said. “Most of the girls are homeless. Not so many are drug users. Many are scavengers but they are very vulnerable to abuse.”

Eleven of the boys in the school are intravenous drug users and two have AIDS.

Sikander Khan, whose family started the charity 20 years ago, says the AIDS problem is getting worse. Pakistan is a poor country, and 70 percent of its 180 million people are under 30 years old, with more children using drugs intravenously and AIDS rates rising, Khan said.

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