When Munna cleared his Class VIII examinations, he opted for science as his family wanted him to be an engineer. "At the time, we had no idea of the future," says his elder brother Mushahid. Sporting a long beard and turban, Munna is today a zealous Muslim committed to the Taliban cause.
The stocky Munna now follows a strict "Islamic" dress code, wearing a kurta and pyjama trousers no longer than his ankle. His conversation is peppered with phrases from the Friday sermon, even when he is talking about the life he has now abandoned. Gone are the days when he used to play cricket in the streets of Karachi. He is no longer the brat who got into mischief with his friends.
The revolution in Munna's life may be traced to the day he attended a Sipah-e-Sahaba rally addressed by party chief Maulana Azam Tariq. "This was the first time I learnt what jehad was all about," he recalls. "Maulana saheb spoke in great detail about the importance of jehad in a Muslim's life. He opened my eyes. Now I know life is only for Allah—worldly goods come second." Soon, the young man flocked religious gatherings. He found new comrades from the Sipah-e-Sahaba, and later from the Taliban. "He started avoiding home," recalls Mushahid. "But we knew he was attending some madras-sah. His tastes had changed. He had stopped watching TV. His friends, too, had changed. And then one day, he was gone."
Munna's family panicked, fearing that he had fallen victim to violence in the city. His relatives went to the madrassah they thought he was enrolled in. Here they were told that he had gone to Afghanistan along with some friends. After a fortnight, Munna returned.He had been to Afghanistan, and yes, he went there of his own will to see the jehad. "In the madrassah we learnt about the jehad only through speeches. There I had the opportunity to see it with my own eyes." From Karachi, the boys took a bus to Quetta. There, the Taliban arranged a trip to Qandahar where Munna and his friends studied the Taliban brand of administration first hand.
"The system the Taliban have established is excellent," says Munna. "Smoking is banned. Even those Taliban who want to smoke cannot do so publicly." He goes on to tell stories of purdah and the Islamic system of justice (as interpreted by the Taliban) and, of course, the jehad. He has seen the war from up close, people killing other people in the name of Islam. "But I never laid my hand on a weapon." The most memorable aspect of the trip, however, was a meeting with Osama Bin Laden, the world's most wanted radical Islamist. "Twenty guards surrounded him as he sat among his children," recalls Munna. "I didn't know he was Osama Bin Laden until my friends told me. It was an honour to meet him." Munna has visited Afghanistan thrice.
"I want him to live like an ordinary boy of 19," says brother Mushahid. That doesn't seem to be possible any more.
It is common knowledge that minors from various madrassahs have been visiting Afghanistan regularly without their parents' permission. And while the institutions deny any hand in recruitment for jehad, some parents feel otherwise. "I had handed over my son to the school so that he would learn the Quran, not the handling of guns," says Farooq Ahmed Awan whose 13-year-old son, Maroof, visited Afghanistan along with his mates from the Jamia Islamia Clifton. The authorities insist that the boy left of his own accord but Awan believes that the school encouraged his son's decision.
"It is the responsibility of the parents to find out what is happening to their children," says Zia Ahmed Awan, lawyer and human rights activist, who handled Maroof's case."Some 700 students were sent by various religious schools to Afghanistan in May from Karachi alone," confirms Sharfuddin Memon, deputy chief of the Citizen-Police Liaison Committee.
It is quite easy to inspire impressionable students like Maroof. What these boys are not prepared for are the psychological effects of war. Maroof now spends sleepless nights with the thunder of artillery fire pounding in his ears. "I was sent to Afghanistan by a teacher at the madrassah," he admits. "I know them. They pose a threat to my family." Maroof's father has lost much of his business since he had to lie low in the face of threats to his family. "I'm not saying people should not send their children to madrassahs but one must check up on the institute," says Awan.