Image from PBS Frontline

Afghan Boys:

The Suffering of the Innocent

August 29, 2021

by Sean Kullman

It was 2014 when the #BringBackOurGirls campaign captured the world’s attention and focused on 276 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. The international response was systematic, and the United States (with the help of Michelle Obama, celebrities, and world organizations) garnered financial and organizational support to bring unprecedented attention and action to the plight of girls in war-torn countries. Two years later, a report in the Wall Street Journal addressed the 10,000 kidnapped boys of Boko Haram who were trained in boot camps and prepared for war and other militant action. But for the most part, the reaction was tepid, as boys in war-torn regions remained largely absent from contemporary narratives. There is a negligence on the part of government organizations and non-government organizations to put forward serious policy actions and financial support to recognize boys and men in war-torn countries.

As the situation in Afghanistan worsens and people fear even greater instability in the larger region, the plight of boys and young men continues to go largely ignored. A country, whose median age is 18 years old, is rife for the trafficking of boys into militant groups, sexual abuse, and other activities designed to support terrorist causes.

The language regarding boy soldiers has shifted over the last decade or so and has been replaced with the words child soldiers to account for girls who are taken by terrorist groups. It should not, however, obscure our realization that boys are kidnapped for the purpose of becoming soldiers in far greater numbers. Although girls are trafficked more for sexual abuse, the attention to boys as victims of sexual abuse does not receive enough attention and may account for the rising number of boys trafficked for sexual exploitation. The World Health Organization has reported that sexual abuse of males remains largely understudied.

The U.S. Government, too, has remained silent regarding the incidence of sexually abused boys (Bacha bazi) in Afghanistan until a U.S. soldier came forward and reported the abuse that was ignored by higher-ups in the chain of command. “One incident that gained media attention involved Army Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland, a Green Beret who admitted he lost his cool during a 2011 deployment to Kunduz province. Martland and his captain struck an Afghan police officer, who allegedly had confessed to raping a boy and then beating the child’s mother for telling authorities.”

The number of boys recruited, abducted, and sold into militant actions remains largely unknown and is seriously undercounted. In one PBS Frontline story, a United Nations task force documented the recruitment of 560 child soldiers. 556 were boys. "Boys as young as six were used to unknowingly transport explosives in 2014, and two of the three were killed when they detonated," according to the Frontline story.

The United Nations, World Health Organization, the United States, other governments, and Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) around the world have largely ignored the plight of boys or have simply resigned themselves to a cursory overview as a symbolic gesture of caring in the midst of unconscionable acts against humanity. All one needs to do is listen to the nightly news regarding the Afghan crisis and count the number of times the words boy and man is even mentioned (when it comes to tragedy, victimhood, death, and Sharia Law under Taliban rule) to know males are an afterthought. While reports often indicate nearly half of those killed and injured in some sort of terrorist act were women and children, we almost never hear more than half were boys and men. And we rarely see a demographic accounting of those killed and wounded by sex.

Although males and females are impacted by these terrorist groups, public outcry ripples through our country when we mention the plight of girls, women, and children in war-torn regions. Rarely do we hear the words boy or man as victims of these groups. One of the reasons may stem from the homogenous ways we stereotype males as part of the larger threat to society but rarely as its victims. The actions of the terrorists, who are overwhelmingly male, are somehow equated with the gender of the terrorists’ male victims.

Our cultures blame men for the chaos while simultaneously banishing male victims from the kindness and decency human rights demands. We have immuned ourselves to the human sufferings of the male and then wonder why there is so much violence.

"These children were being sent to be trained to attack Afghan and international forces in suicide training camps. Afghan police said they rescued a convoy of 41 children, some aged as young as six, from being smuggled over the border to Pakistan and trained as suicide bombers."

(Photo: Khan Wali Salarzi)

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