ISLAMABAD - Seven-year-old Muhammad Mugheez, who reached a slum in the Pakistani capital Islamabad two weeks ago after coming from Afghanistan, spends the day begging in the streets with his mother.
In the night
, he and his unskilled father join hundreds of others sitting for hours outside a bakery to get free bread.
For the last two decades, Afghan children, who constitute around half of the total Afghan population, have been exposed to the ravages of war inside and outside their country.
Afghani children walk into a basement used as a shelter to protect them from U.S. and British military strikes in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2001. (AP Photo/Amir Shah)
They have been suffering from hunger, disease, illiteracy, child labor and forced recruitment as soldiers, besides being easy victims of war who will live with its effects today and in coming years.
Mugheez's family is part of 200,000 other Afghans who have found their way to Islamabad, a much better place to live in compared to the crowded, filthy camps near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
The refugee population living in and around the capital now equals 20 percent of the 8 million people of Islamabad. Most of the Afghan children here -- half of Afghanistan's 21 million people are under 18 years of age -- are scavengers.
Pakistan hosts around 3 million Afghan refugees, half of whom are children. Some 1,000 people from Afghanistan are pouring into Pakistan daily.
On Monday, Eric Laroche, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) representative in Afghanistan, says that the situation was bad enough for Afghan children before the Oct. 8 bombings - and look even bleaker now.
Afghan children are malnourished and lack warm clothing as the winter approaches, he said.
Some 100,000 children are likely to die in Afghanistan in the coming winter due to diarrhea, pneumonia and other diseases, according to UNICEF.
U.N. officials estimate that more than 95 percent of Afghan children do not go to school - a situation that depicts the total collapse of the education system in the war-ravaged country.
In fact, an entire generation of Afghan children is growing without education. Girls are most affected as they are prevented from going to school under the brand of strict Islam by the ruling Taliban.
To add to their misery, there are reports that in the aftermath of the air strikes against Afghanistan, unprecedented levels of child recruitment and mobilization into the ranks of the Afghan militia and the opposition Northern Alliance has been going on unhindered.
The Pakistan-based non-government group Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) has appealed to the UN Security Council to integrate specific measures to prevent the use of children as soldiers in the impending conflict in Afghanistan.
''The United Nations must take into account child protection in its political actions on Afghanistan, including the incorporation of action to stop child recruitment and to task the UN Special Mission on Afghanistan with monitoring the recruitment of children and deploy child protection advisers with any future UN peacekeeping or humanitarian operations," reads the appeal.
In an interview, Masroor Gillani said the group is demanding this under the new Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in May 2000.
The protocol ''prohibits governments and armed groups from using children under the age of 18 in hostilities; bans all compulsory recruitment of under 18; and raises the minimum age and requires strict safeguards for voluntary recruitment''.
Article 4 of the Optional Protocol also provides that ''armed groups that are distinct from the armed forces of a State should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years''.
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are not signatories to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Pakistan however is signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, children have been used as soldiers by all warring parties in Afghanistan's during two decade-old civil war. Forced and compulsory recruitment by the Taliban and Northern Alliance continues to be reported, despite international commitments to the contrary.
In its September 2001 report, the coalition says: ''Reports of child recruitment continued to emerge, particularly in connection with 'madrasah' -- religious schools in Pakistan -- whose young Afghan refugee students became a main source of recruits for the Taliban when they first became party to the civil war in 1994.''
''As the conflict receded in Taliban-held areas, recruitment has progressively taken place within Afghanistan. But the Taliban continue to draw recruits from networks of 'madrasah' in Pakistan sponsored by various Islamist parties and groups,'' the report adds.
''Where once these institutions were confined largely to the border regions, today they are spread throughout the country (even in urban centers of Punjab and Sindh) and draw beyond the Afghan refugee diaspora,'' it explains.
Pakistani social scientist Kaiser Bengali traces the root cause of the use of child soldiers to Afghanistan's decades of war, and its damaged society.
In the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. and western-sponsored counter-military campaign, thousands of children were orphaned, Bengali explains.
As the United States engaged Islamist clergy in its war against Soviets, it found it expedient to employ these children to fight.
''Hundreds of thousands of these orphans were collected in scores of 'madrasah' in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistani cities where they grew up in an environment devoid of women. So they do not know any norm of civilization," Bengali adds.
SPARC researcher Saifur Rehman, who just returned after conducting a survey of children in Darra Adam Khel, a tribal town at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, said that around 2,500 children, both Afghan and local, are not only involved in active war but also in small arms manufacturing and cartridge filling, among others.
Their daily wages range between 5 rupees to 30 rupees (8 to 48 U.S. cents).
In addition, despite strict checks to monitor the cross-border movement of Afghan refugees at the border town of Torkham, many children are involved in the smuggling of items across the border. These include petrol, cloth, cosmetics, washing powder, toothpaste, soap, cosmetics, processed food items, scrap, and auto parts into Pakistan.
Smuggling of fine quality foreign cloth by roping it with the child carriers' bodies, is also fast becoming a practice because it is difficult for the security guards to detect.
Copyright © 2001 IPS-Inter Press Service