IV The situation of other children and the lack of options
Despite all this, the bin Laden children are, in some respects, luckier than some. Children from other families often don’t have family resources or support to assist them to leave, or to start a new life–if they do manage to find their own way out. Nor can they necessarily find a government to take them. But yet, still, when they could many have tried to escape this lifestyle. Their choice to persist and in doing so turn their backs on all they have ever known is by no means easy. Not only must they confront familial and social pressure against walking away, but there are very real physical challenges involved with trying to leave. Even back before the war in Afghanistan began, it was virtually impossible for them to leave.
To illustrate…I was told one story of a child who wanted to leave. For anonymity’s sake we’ll call the child Mahmud.
Without the knowledge of family, Mahmud got himself over the border and into Pakistan, but then what? Mahmud had limited money and no documents. Mahmud’s family members were wanted. Mahmud didn’t even know where the embassy of his country was. And even then, had Mahmud managed to get there, what fate would have awaited him?
Being of an age where he could be manipulated, Mahmud’s likely fate would have been, as it has befallen others, to be grabbed by the intelligence services, broken and used to spy on his family and others. It’s happened before. It still happens. And make no bones about it; how children are manipulated for these purposes is something truly hideous.
Perhaps the most awful publicly known example I can think of is the fate that befell one child in Sudan. He was sodomised and tortured by intelligence agents who used this to blackmail the child into spying on his family and others. He was discovered by militants to be spying, tortured again, and despite pleas from his family and others ordered executed by Ayman Zawahiri. Other children have been betrayed by those who blackmail or coerce them into working on their behalf. Abominably, these practices (and not only against children) still go on and intelligence agencies that are ostensibly held to codes of conduct turn a blind eye.
Children are raised on these stories, and taught to fear there is no help if you want to leave. Instead you will be used against your family, against the only people you know. Or you will be detained, tortured and possibly killed. They are taught they cannot trust and they cannot leave. As the fate of several children attests, this is not without grounds.
So where else would children like Mahmud, go?
There was and is no other home. In some cases, parents have been out of their home countries for years. Identity documents are lost, or forged, or nonexistent. Many of these children have been dragged from country to country, living under other names. The stress of this alone is enough to break a person.
They only had each other. There was no other support network. There were no exit routes for this type of situation. There were no opt-out programs through which they could seek help. There was nothing.
There is still nothing.
Let that statement sink in and think about.
In over ten years of war, the majority of children have tried to get out, and in doing so make the most powerful statement against their former lives that can be made, and yet there is not one single organization or initiative addressing this issue. Not one. I know because I’ve spent a good period of time focused on this, trying to see where help is or could be offered.
So let me tell you again. There are no programs for children or wives to contact. There is no organization to support them to leave. There are no organizations to help them rebuild their lives, to get an education, to support their families, to have their own families. From so many perspectives this is a travesty.
What there is consists of a spate of programs aimed at counter or de-radicalization, or countering violent extremism. None of these are suitable and most (particularly those in the West) are inherently flawed by their very titles and the premises underpinning them—not least because they first objectify who they seek to influence (but this is a subject for another post).
My point is that these programs assume radicalization tendencies or vulnerability, and thus a degree of assumptive guilt is placed on those they seek to influence, and/or they are objectified by being identified and singled out because of their vulnerabilities. Others are rehabilitative or amnesty based; aimed at those who have been actively involved in the milieu. What is there for people who were trapped or born into a lifestyle they never wanted or supported?
What is out there for the women and particularly the children, for whom leaving carries such great burden and risk, of going against family, culture and everything they’ve ever known?