Download The Taliban recruits hundreds of young boys in Pakistan’s notorious Swat Valley every year.
The surrounding tribal areas are a breeding ground for future militants, and where many train to become suicide bombers.
A former guard to a senior Taliban member, one Pakistani teenager has quit the hard line life and says he is ready to go back to school.
Mudassar Shah has his story.
In the past, 17-year-old Naeem Jan looked up to Maulana Fazlullah, or Radio Mullah, the leader of a banned Pakistani Islamic fundamentalist group.
He even worked his way up to become a security guard for a senior Taliban commander after joining the Taliban at age 14.
It was a decision he made despite the pleas from his family.
“Once my mother followed me and came out of our home and asked me to quit the Taliban. I pointed my gun toward her and wanted to shoot her,” recalls Naeem. “It was extreme, my love for my mission. She stopped following me. Besides my mother, my sister asked me many times to leave the Taliban.”
Naeem was not forcibly recruited in Swat, but joined out of choice.
And he says there were many boys like him – who willingly joined the Taliban without their parent’s permission.
The Taliban’s strict enforcement of virtue, including the Islamic judicial courts, was what first attracted him to join the hardline group.
It was 2008 and the Taliban had a stronghold in Swat Valley.
“We had a group of class mates in school and one of our teachers used to motivate students to join the Taliban. Then one day we went to the main center of the Taliban. We heard Maulana Fazlullah’s speech and then listened to his speeches on the radio. Over time, we turned to the Taliban and took up weapons for the first time.”
The government gave the Taliban and their supporters a deadline to surrender before the military operation in Swat Valley in April 2009.
Naeem had undergone several training sessions with the militants and was considered a reliable Taliban member. He was even trained as a suicide bomber.
Pakistani Army officers would regularly visit Naeem’s house for information about the Taliban. Naeem says the visits brought great shame to his family, especially to his ill father.
But everything changed after the death of his father and brother. Naeem was the only male member left in his family and he began to reconsider his choices.
Eventually he decided to surrender himself to the authorities.
It was a dark time and he was jailed for one year.
“It was my 12th day in jail when I fell unconscious. I saw my mother from the window of my jail cell waiting to get the chance to meet me. I was extremely sad that day,” he says. “I could even stand on my feet to see her that day, but I fell down again and became unconscious.”
Today, the 17-year-old has set up a health clinic in the remote area of Swat – it’s the only place in the area that provides medical services.
It was in prison that he first studied health.
Now that he is free, Naeem is working hard to save enough money for the dowries of his two unmarried sisters.
He has cut all ties with the Taliban militants, but people in the village are still afraid of him. There are rumors in the village that he might work for army intelligence now.
But Naeem isn’t fazed. He says he is just grateful to be free.
“It was an extremely happy moment of my life when I was released from jail. I took a breath freely and felt my freedom,” he says.
“But when I think of the past, of when my house was demolished, of my brother dying of a heart attack, of spending a year in jail and of my family’s financial troubles, I blame myself for all the miseries of my family. I would never have joined the Taliban had I know of all the miseries before. I would not have joined them, regardless of any reward.”
Today Naeem says he wants to continue his studies.
He even started writing a biography, but says he gave up because it was too painful to recall those times.
“It is important to remember the past to write biography, but when I think back, it just reminds me of the sadness of those times. I wrote till I was put in jail but I have not been able to get the courage to write after that because it makes me feel gloomy and sad.”
Naeem says that studying further is too expensive and he would rather support his family.
Instead, he is focusing on the young boys in his village.
Encouraging them to study and stay away from hardline groups.