SAIMA KHAN wants to die a martyr. Life is transient, she told her father in a telephone call last week, and the real glory is to sacrifice it for Allah. Her statement would be alarming at any age, but Saima is only 10.
As she spoke, rifle shots rang out, the acrid smell of tear gas drifted over Islamabad and hundreds of troops surrounded the pro-Taliban Red Mosque, a religious school complex in the heart of Pakistan’s capital where Saima was among hundreds of children being held as virtual hostages in a stand-off between militants and the government.
Saima and her 14-year-old sister, Asma, were embroiled in a struggle for the soul of Pakistan in which up to 70 militants died last week and more than 100 were injured, according to mosque officials.
Holed up inside the complex behind the lines of troops and razor wire, the children – many of them girls whose families had sent them to the mosque to receive a strict Islamic education – repeatedly rejected relatives’ entreaties to leave before a threatened army onslaught.
There was evidence that many had been brainwashed into a cult of martyrdom, and the authorities feared last night that some were being prepared to be suicide bombers. In barely eight weeks, Saima had been transformed from a religious but fun-loving girl to a jihadi, grimly craving martyrdom.
At the barricades, her father, Luftullah Khan, a shopkeeper, frantically pestered soldiers to let him rescue both his daughters. But when he got through to them on their mobile telephone, they said they preferred martyrdom to freedom.
“I spoke to my daughter. She said there was no food or water left. I tried to arrange a meeting, but she said, ‘We’re here; my dead body will be here. I will not leave my teachers’,” Khan said.
His bewilderment at her sudden transformation reflects that of a nation that can barely believe the events unfolding in the shadow of General Pervez Musharraf’s presidential palace.
Militant leaders said yesterday that 30 girls had been buried in a mass grave inside the mosque grounds. Two more students died in fighting overnight. The children attend the Jamia Hafsa and the Jamia Faridia, two local madrasahs, or religious schools. The militants have herded their students into the basement of the mosque.
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