SRINAGAR, India, IPS - Lured or coerced into militancy, children as young as 12 years old are being recruited to fight the separatist war in Kashmir, northern India.
When Indian security forces intercepted a batch of fresh "recruits" allegedly headed across the border to training camps in Pakistan last August, they detained young boys between 12 and 17 years.
After nearly 10 years of fighting, the armed struggle for independence has lost its popular appeal, with the movement infiltrated and militants turned renegades, but for teenage male fighters the lure of "jihad" or holy war is still strong.
Young adolescent are particularly vulnerable since they have grown u p in an environment where power seems to grow out of the barrel of the gun. The violence of war is everyday in the state, a bone of contention between India and Pakistan for 50 years.
India blames Pakistan for the insurgency and accuses its neighbor of arming and training militants. Islamabad says it supports the just demands of Kashmir's majority Muslim people for independence India. The war has widowed hundreds of women, and orphaned children.
Take Afrosa and Saleema, who are lying in hos pital with bullet injuries. On Sept. 12, unidentified gunmen barged into their home and shot dead their mother Haleema Begum and Shakeel, their 14-year-old brother.
Haleema had been a member of the Association of the Mothers of the Missing, tireless in her search for her son Bilal Ahmed who had been picked up by the security forces during a search operation in 1992.
Afrosa and Saleema are now orphans, lengthening the list of 15,000 children in the Kashmir Valley and Doda district, who have los t either or both parents in the violence.
Ensnared in the shadowy world of separatism and counter-insurgency, entire generations of children will be emotionally affected for the rest of their lives by the violence and brutal death they have witnessed.
At home, little Kashmiri children play a game of "Bunker," armed with toy light machine guns, freely borrowing the lexicon of insurgency -- "crackdown", "crossfire", "curfew" and "catch 'n kill."
A child who watches his brother dragged out=20 of the house by security forces or "unidentified gunmen", an euphemism for members of the many armed groups, and his body handed over the next day or his mother or father brutally beaten up by the ubiquitous security forces during a crackdown thinks violence is a legitimate means of achieving one's aim.
Nassem Shafiye, a teacher at Bemina Boys College in Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir state, has lost students to the armed militancy that turned violent in 1989.
"Some would disappear=20 for a while and return to say they had been in jail. Others, I'd read in the newspaper, had been killed in an encounter or had disappeared," she said. "When you live today not knowing whether there is a tomorrow, it seemed pointless to ask them to write that standard essay 'What do you want to be when you grow up'," she added resignedly.
The years of civil war have been lost years of learning. In 1990, educational institutions were open for only 85 days and in subsequent years for 100 days. As the Indian government rushed in security personnel to crush the uprising, 431 school and college buildings were taken over to accommodate them.
"Unidentified gunmen" have killed some 100 leading academics and mass cheating under the shadow of guns has lowered educational standards in the state. No jobs are to be had except government jobs and that only if you can bribe your way.
Girl students were the worst affected. In Baramulla Degree College for Women, the drop out rate was more than 10 percent.
Mehjooba, a middle class girl in Belina village, who had to travel by bus 10 kms to school in Baramulla, had to stay at home for two years.
With parents unwilling to let daughters travel alone, because of fear of molestation and abduction by both the security forces and the militants, opportunities which had opened up for girls in the state were lost.
Anxious parents have pushed girls into marriage at a younger age, afraid their sexual vulnerability would be preyed upon by multiple armed grou ps who are increasingly unaccountable, specially in the border areas.
Radio Kashmir broadcaster Nayeema Ahmed said she saw, outside a health camp in Uri, on the border, a long line of girls between 13 and 17 years, all married and many of them to old men. The young men are dead or those who have come back have been so badly tortured that parents of girls fear they have been rendered impotent.
Another fallout of the war has been the loss of the state's free spirited Sufi tradition. With the exod us of thousands of Kashmiri Hindus, a minority community, the state, and the communalizing of society, children are growing up imbued with Islamic zeal. It was young boys who insisted teachers wear a veil in Burn Hall, one of Srinagar's best known schools.
It is this generation that will shape the future of Kashmir.
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