Terror's Children

Screencap of "Terror’s Children (2003)"

(Discovery Times Channel/ 2003/ 45 minutes)
Documentary screening and Panel Discussion

New York, October 2, 2003

Discussion Panel:

Sharmeen Obaid, filmmaker
Asith Bhattacharjee, Acting Director in the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict
Saman Zia-Zarifi, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division

Moderator: Linden Chubin, Asia Society, Associate Director of Public Programs

Welcome by Ambassador Nicholas Platt, President of Asia Society:

The Asia Society is pleased to screen the documentary Terror's Children, produced by Discovery Times Channel. I am happy to announce that tonight's event is now the second in the series of a collaborative effort between the Asia Society and Discovery Times Channel. We are also very pleased to have with us leading advocates of child's rights to discuss the challenges in securing the well being of children caught in conflict zones, and possible solutions to address this urgent need.

Sam Zia-Zarifi, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division and Sharmeen Obaid, who made Terror's Children, will join us for a discussion following the screening. Mr. Olara Otunnu, who was scheduled to deliver some introductory remarks could unfortunately not join us tonight. We have the pleasure of having Mr. Asith Bhattacharjee from Mr. Otunnu's office of Children and Armed Conflict at the UN to join the panel discussion. Biographical information about the speakers is in the program handout, which you should have received.

Tonight's event is part of Asia Society's Asian Social Issues Program, a public education initiative that looks at critical social challenges and emerging strategies to address them. For the last four years, we have played an important convening role to discuss issues on human rights, conflict, poverty, the environment, women and children, among others.

Without further ado, we will now screen Terror's Children.

Panel Discussion:

Question: What kind of work is specifically being done to work with organized youth groups, there in Pakistan or on the border of Afghanistan to help them protect themselves during the time of conflict and/or when they are being recruited into armed forces, or abuses that they're facing?

Sharmeen Obaid: In the area we filmed in, we found there were absolutely no NGOs apart from UNHCR working with the refugees. And children had to go out and earn a living or starve to death. A lot of these children don't have their parents with them. They fled the bombing for example. Like the garbage picker; he hadn't come with his family. Most of them that get recruited to the Islamic organizations do so of their own free will. Who wouldn't want to go and study at an Islamic religious school as opposed to working 13 hours a day? I can safely say that in the city of Karachi, where I filmed, I am not too familiar with what is happening in the border areas, but I do realize that some of these madrasas do send the children across to Afghanistan to fight, once they are a little older and once they have been indoctrinated.

Saman Zia-Zarifi: There are, of course, Pakistani NGOs who deal with the issue of child labor in Pakistan, which is another endemic problem there. But Pakistan is overwhelmed and it simply doesn't have the resources to deal with the refugees. And there are a few NGOs that work with Afghan refugee children, but very little. This is clearly a population that is completely at risk and completely vulnerable. And I do want to echo what you have just heard. The only organizations that really do act to protect the children are those affiliated with the mosques and the religious organizations and for the most part they are the only ones who provide services right now, other than UNHCR. Unfortunately some of these groups don't necessarily have the same idea of what's in the best interest of the children as others but for the most part those are the only groups that are providing services.

Asith Bhattacharjee: Can I add something to this because at around the time this film was made, at the end of it, when you see the refugee camps, when the refugees are returning, that's about the time the Undersecretary General and I went to Afghanistan, and we toured most of the internally-displaced camps because the refugees were put in certain camps before they were sent back home. But yes, the problem we showed in the film we found was transferred back into Afghanistan. At that point in time in Kabul city alone we estimated something around 50,000 children were in the streets, doing the same kind of work shown in the film. But we also saw at that point in time, certain non-governmental organizations set in Afghan groups starting the seeds of some programs which they were implementing giving them education at night or some food and trying to help educate these children. And to get them back into society and to stop them from living in the streets. In fact, the Undersecretary General at the end of the visit proposed a program which was called "Food for Education Program," and advocated that the four loaves of bread these children get for picking up rags and other materials from the street be given by humanitarian agencies so these children could take these four loaves of bread and give it to their family, and in return the child goes to school. However, I must admit, that this has not yet taken off although we are in touch with UN agencies in Afghanistan to make it work and to make it happen.

Question: Who is paying for the religious schools, whether they are fundamentalist or schools that are not supported by the Pakistani government?

Obaid: It is a really interesting question because when we were filming there, we kept asking the heads of these religious schools where their money comes from because a lot of times we hear that the money comes from Middle Eastern countries. However, they said that Pakistanis have big hearts and they are rich and the wealthy Pakistanis patronize these Islamic religious schools. I find that a little hard to fathom because Pakistan is a very poor country and we have an extensive network of Islamic religious schools. So it gets into the gray area, exactly who funds. But every Friday, after the prayers, you see these Islamic religious school leaders standing outside mosques with open arms to collect funds in the name of Islam and I know that they collect a lot of money this way.

Question: Someone said during the film that Musharraf was viewed as a traitor. Was that from the viewpoint of an Afghan refugee? Or is this a growing feeling on the part of Pakistanis?

Obaid: No, I would think that it was the Afghan refugees and not all Afghan refugees, I might add. It was the Afghan refugees from the southern part of Afghanistan, essentially where the Taliban are based. Those people feel betrayed by Pakistan and President Musharraf because he sided with the West against the Taliban regime. So it is extensively these people that believe that.

Question: Do you think that that's a growing threat for his regime?

Obaid: I don't think that it's a growing threat. It's a phenomenon that grew when the bombing of Afghanistan was happening and we filmed soon after that. But since then I think it has become a lot better.

Question: I know that right now aid might not be overflowing or organized, but as you think about the future and in a best-case scenario, what would be the best way to help these refugees? And what would be the aim of the aid: to help them become established in Pakistan? Would it help them in a transition way, as they repatriate?

Zia-Zarifi: I think that not just for Afghanistan but also for refugees anywhere, the best solution is to make sure the conditions in their home country are safe for their return. In the case of Afghanistan, where the United States is essentially right now in the driver's seat, of course that is a huge issue. The President of the United States asked for $26 billion in total for Iraqi reconstruction and for about $870 million for Afghan reconstruction. Now this is a country that is about 25% larger in population and orders of magnitude poorer. And this is despite a speech in which the President had promised a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. So there is a tremendous gap right now between Afghanistan's needs and what the United States and the international community is providing. I have to say that in this respect, the European countries and Japan have been quite remiss. There is a lot of money promised. Some has been delivered. But there is a huge amount of money that has been promised and not delivered. Of course none of this money can be put to any use until the security situation in Afghanistan improves. None of these people can go back to their home country until the security situation is improved. And that will take an effort of will on the part of the international community to support what the United Nations is doing and what I think the Afghan central government would like to do.

Bhattacharjee: I would second that.

Question: I would like to know who picked the title of the movie: the New York Times or the filmmakers or those who gave the funds? Or the Discovery Channel which wanted a very catchy title for the United States? And second, not to do disservice to the children, but they are innocent and at best, in terms of the background, it should have been children of war on Afghanistan.

Obaid: I think our concept was these children are terrorized by the situations that they live in, not necessarily that they are terrorists themselves; these people are victims of terror in their own right, in each family. When war happened, and most of these refugees went from Afghanistan to Pakistan, we thought it was a situation in which they were terrorized. So it is not in the terrorist concept but I do understand, when you watch the film, it seems a little difficult to imagine the title. But if you look at the context that we decided to put it in, it was a very different context than what you think it is.

Question: We have our own refugee problem here in New York. I am referring to the massive deportation of Muslim men after 9/11 and to the special registration program that's been implemented. Is Human Rights Watch documenting the affect of the deportations on children here that face living 10 years without their fathers? We are doing a documentary about the separation of the family and I would like to know if the UN or Human Rights Watch is working something similar, and if so, whom would we be able to talk to about that, about the children?

Zia-Zarifi: The general issue of the expulsion of the Muslim community in the United States and special attention being paid to them is something Human Rights Watch has looked at quite considerably and in some detail. But at the risk of sounding legalistic, there is a distinction between that issue, which is significant, and refugees as such. Refugee of course is a term that people use but it is also a term of art and of law and in legal terms, it refers to people who have escaped their home country and are seeking refuge in another country and as such are subject to a very extensive legal regime, internationally, as refugees. They have special rights and special protections. And the children that we saw in this film are in this latter sort. Although the questions that you raised, is something we are looking at but it is very distinct from the problems here, I think.

Bhattacharjee: The Convention on the Rights of the Child prevents separation of children from their families. So that is one bit of information. And secondly, whom to approach? There is a treaty body committee, called the Committee on the Rights of the Child, with whom there is a communication mechanism. If the family writes to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the committee can take up the issue after all legal resources have been exhausted. That is the time when the committee can ask the government concerned if it is a party to the Treaty on the Rights of the Child. The United States is not a party to the Treaty on the Rights of the Child.

Question: Regarding the mental health of the children, I did a study on a small group of kids up at the border in 2002, January, and found that 4 out of the 6 Afghan refugee kids were suicidal. Did you come across that kind of despair, with any of the kids you talked to?

Obaid: We personally did not come across any children who were suicidal, per se, but we did find most of the children were very depressed about their lifestyle and they thought that there was no way to end the misery they were going through. And most of them felt that even when they went back to Afghanistan, that they wouldn't have a future. So in some sense, they thought that that was their world. And our car used to go through the refugee camp and most of these children had never even sat in a car before. And I remember the second or third week that we were filming, the young girls requested that we give them a drive in our car. These are the simple things that they look forward to, because in their lives, they feel that they have nothing to look forward to except working and looking after their family.

Zia-Zarifi: The question of mental health in Afghanistan though is of course a huge one and a problem for reconstruction there. This is a deeply traumatized country. I think I have traveled just about everywhere there and most of the young people there have only known really quite savage fighting - quite savage. But to get back to the issue of the title, there was a time before terror was the subject of a war, it was just an emotion. That's at least how I took these children. They have faced a lot of terror in their lives and I cannot try to explain that anymore to an American audience about the responsibility of the United States right now in making sure that the terror in Afghanistan comes to an end. And by that I don't mean just terrorist cells. I mean the fear that the people of Afghanistan face daily.

Bhattacharjee: I think mental health is indeed an issue, particularly for children in Afghanistan. The United Nations estimates that at least 66% of the children have witnessed a violent death, a killing, or some member of their family dying. That's a pretty high rate. In our travels we did find some of the NGOs and some of the mental health doctors working with children there who were-- I am not a doctor to know whether it was clinical depression or suicidal tendencies-- but they were very deeply affected. It was plain to everybody that there was a sense of detachment from everything around. And indeed it is a problem and a problem which needs to be addressed as quickly as possible, if the society is to progress.

Question: Did you have any experience with schools for girls in the refugee camps and in Pakistan in general? And what is the United Nations doing in support of their education campaigns to be sure that girls get as sufficient an education as boys.

Obaid: In the entire refugee camp, there was only one school and it was not an Islamic religious school. It was a proper school that taught English and math, etc. But that school had shifts, where the boys would go in the morning and the girls would go in the evening. And there were a lot of girls that would go there. But because most Afghani families don't like their women to even step out of the house in an environment that is unfamiliar where strange males might be there, not a lot of young girls would go to these schools. In Pakistan, in general, you have a lot of schools for women. That is a different thing. Parents don't feel like sending their girls to school after a certain age because of social constraints. But there are schools that exist in large cities like Karachi, in rural areas there are obviously less so.

Moderator: What sort of efforts are being done by the UN?

Bhattacharjee: That is a very broad question. That comes under the broad rubric of general equality. But I can talk about what was happening in Kabul when we visited. When the UNICEF started the back-to-school program, most of those who returned to school were girls and we found that girls were much more proactive in a sense of wanting to study. There were special schools for girls that we visited. At the moment there is a great yearning and great desire for all those children, particularly girls, to carry on with their education. And a lot of effort is being made by UNICEF. There is a gender advisor in the UN mission there and they are working together to see that the rights of women and particularly the girls are protected and advanced.

Zia-Zarifi: One huge problem I should point out is that, over the last 6 months there have been a number of attacks on girl's schools inside Afghanistan. These are schools that have just been rebuilt. And one of the most troubling things we found, especially in southeastern Afghanistan is that a lot of refugees who had returned, who had lived in Pakistan or Iran and who were anxious to send their girls back to school as well as the local populace, were now pulling their girls back from the schools because of the security problems there. They just could not allow their girls to go. This is a very troubling development, to have girls once again excluded from education in Afghanistan.

Question: It's a lovely film. It gets back to the original question about that scene. And why you decided in that moment to stop being the observer and engage in that moment. What was going on in your head?

Obaid: First, I am a very emotional person and throughout the filming experience, I found myself becoming very attached to all the children. His younger brother was most antagonistic towards me. He didn't want us to film per se and he never cooperated with us and he thought that in some way I was making his brother question the authority of the elder brother. I spent about 10 weeks in the refugee camp and I didn't see his brother work one single day. And by the end of it, I was saying injury or no injury, there is an 11 year old boy who is working and supporting an entire family of five people while his elder brother indulges in drugs, does gambling in the afternoon and was even caught stealing. So I guess I decided - I didn't know it was going to be part of the film in the end-I just decided to go all out and give it to him and hopefully having a woman scream at him would hit home some sense!

Moderator: Thank you, and we are glad you did!