ARGHANDAB DISTRICT, Afghanistan – Not much comes as a shock to soldiers, but even for men who may have seen it all, the suicide bombing involving a young Afghan boy has taken the already bitter war in this country to a whole new level of savagery.
It was the utter cruelty of the attack Friday that wounded two Canadians and took life of an Afghan soldier on patrol in Zhari district that has made if even the most weather-beaten, battle-hardended faces blanche.
Afghan police initially placed his age at between 10 and 12 years, but over the weekend one official in the troubled district said the child may have been 13-years-old.
What investigators were trying to determine as they sifted through the evidence over the weekend was if the boy’s bomb vest was remotely activated by a militant somewhere nearby, timed to go off – or whether the child flipped the switch himself.
There was speculation that since the child approached the troops with his hands raised, the timing of the attack was not up to him.
“It’s cowardice,” snarled Sapper Chris Greenaway, 21, a member of the 1st Combat Engineering Regiment based in Edmonton.
“To recruit children is pure and utter cowardice.”
There could also be no doubt that the selection of a child as a suicide bomber was a deliberate tactic, just as the Taliban used a man cloaked in a woman’s burka to carry out an attack that killed 12 people outside a police station in the remote of province of Farah last week.
The idea is to make NATO troops uneasy around civilians and perhaps prompt them to fire indiscriminately.
Canadian troops treated crowds of children who came out to see them over the weekend with a bit more trepidation than before. The soldiers were on foot patrol in this district, a jumble of sun-baked villages and lush orchards carved along a meandering river north of Kandahar.
In the villages of Mian Juy, there would be knots of children clinging together in shaded doorways or along dusty pathways. The soldiers gave the occasional wave, but kept their distance.
“A lot us are going to be more cautious when kids are approaching us because now we know they’re using kids,” said Pte. Steve Sabo, 24, of 7 Platoon, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.
A trio of LAV III fighting vehicles stuck in the mud of farm field provided what seemed like endless fascination for a gaggle of youngsters in Morghen on Saturday. After a while one soldier handed out a bag of Canada pens and rubber bouncy balls.
Sgt. Andrew Mason, a big bear of guy who doesn’t hide his delight at seeing little Afghan faces peering at him around mud walled corners, said the attack won’t stop them from trying to interact with the children.
What it will do is force the troops to eyeball the youngsters in the same way they do adults, looking for unusually bulges in the clothing.
“We’ll still talk to the kids, it’s just to let them closer, there won’t be so many, maybe one or two,” said Mason, also of 7 Platoon.
“It’s a shame. The kids are some of the joy the guys get out of doing this and being over here.”
But Mason was adamant the Taliban wouldn’t win with tactics like that.
“What is this doing to them in the eyes of the local population, recruiting their kids to blow them up?” he asked rhetorically.
Late Monday, the Taliban denied the bomber was a child, claiming the attacker was Abdul Musawir, 22, a resident of Farah province, in the southwest.
Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, who identified himself as a Taliban spokesperson, said Musawir gave his life willingly, but did not address the claim that the bomb was remotely detonated.
Almost every soldier has a story about the brown and sometimes green-eyed innocence of many of village children. Their almost biblical existence, in mud homes without electricity, has made them wildly appreciative of even the most ordinary of things.
“These kids are excited when you tear a couple of pages out your notepad – or if you’ve got like half a pack of gum they love you for life,” said Greenaway.
He related a story about when he was working on a road construction project and a child approached him, motioning for a pen and paper.
Making a scribbling movement over the hand is a favourite thing for Afghan children to do whenever they see a NATO soldier – or even the few westerners on the streets here.
The boyish-looking engineer from Prince George, B.C., gave him a spare pen and a notebook.
“He takes a couple of steps back and gets this funny look on his face and starts writing stuff down, turns around, rips the page out and he’s drawn two stick figures with guns,” he said. “So he gave it to us like like a present for giving him a pen and paper.”
Greenaway said he still keeps the picture, much a like a proud parent would pin their child’s drawing to the refrigerator.