By Mujeeb Ahmed and Amna Nawaz, NBC News
QUETTA, Pakistan – In Pakistan’s conflict-torn Balochistan, boys as young as 11 are being paid $20 to carry out bomb attacks by a militant separatist group that’s been fighting the government for years.
Pakistani authorities discovered a network of child bombers after a 14-year-old was caught with a bomb in a shopping bag in March in Balochistan, a resource-rich province bordering Iran that has been wracked by violence for decades.
The boy, Sabir, who was only identified by his first name, was apologetic and asked for forgiveness after he was caught.
But others are defiant. Saddam Lehri, also 14, lost a leg after a bomb he planted in the grounds of a small, private hospital in the city of Quetta went off earlier than he expected. The blast last month injured another 17 people.
“I know very well I was planting a bomb and it’s dangerous, but it is necessary for an independent Baloch motherland,” he said. “We are in a war. I have no regret that I lost my leg. My life is for a free country.”
Sabir and the others, aged between 11 and 16, were found in a farmhouse outside Quetta.
All admitted to planting bombs and said they were paid 2,000 rupees (roughly $20) for each “successful” bomb attack. Police said they have been able to link 14 attacks in the past four months to this group of boys.
The adults in the house – believed to be the boys’ handlers – escaped after a firefight.
“Baloch militant groups are now using children to explode their bombs,” Quetta City Police Chief Mir Zubair Mehmood said. “All these children are from poor families, and all have confessed that they were involved in planting bombs around Quetta.”
Pakistani police — not known for displaying particular sensitivity when it comes to cases involving children — paraded the gang of boys before the media after the raids.
They stood quietly while photographers jockeyed for position and camera flashes popped. The younger boys took in the scene, wide-eyed. Some of the older boys crossed their arms and waited for the spectacle to finish.
Sabir spoke haltingly, hands clasped in his lap, head lowered, refusing to make eye contact.
Saddam Lehri, 14, lost a leg after a bomb he planted in the grounds of a small, private hospital in the city of Quetta went off earlier than he expected. The blast last month injured another 17 people.
He asked for forgiveness, acknowledging his actions had hurt and killed people.
He said planting bombs was not about the money. His father, a police officer posted for long stretches away from his family, earns a good living. Sabir is the oldest of six children, three boys and three girls. All attend school.
He said he was also not motivated by the hashish — supplied by their handlers — that he said many of the boys used regularly.
Instead, he made repeated references to the Baloch motherland, the struggle for independence, and “the war” against Pakistani government forces.
My close relative Naseer Bungalzai is fighting against the Pakistan Army and lives in the Qabo mountains. He inspired me to fight for the Baloch motherland,” Sabir said. “He also helped me to meet a militant commander, Shoaib, who lives in Kili Geo, Quetta.”
Sabir said Shoaib had trained him how to set timers on the bombs, carry them in nondescript shopping bags, and plant them as close as possible to potential targets.
“When I was fully trained, Shoaib gave me a bomb, and told me to leave it in Wahdat Colony near a police post. I left it near a house wall,” Sabir said. “The time was set for 9:15. I left the site at 9:05 and after 10 minutes, the blast went off.”
According to news reports from the time, four people were injured in that attack in Quetta on Dec. 8.
Authorities say Shoaib, believed to be in his mid-30s, is affiliated with the United Baloch Army, one of several separatist groups operating in the region.
Another similar group – the Balochistan Liberation Army – earlier this month claimed responsibility for a devastating grenade-gun-and-IED attack on one of the historic residences of Pakistan’s late founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. The Pakistan flag atop the building was burned in the attack, and replaced with the BLA’s.
Experts say young boys growing up in Balochistan – long underfunded and underdeveloped by Pakistan’s federal government — are increasingly vulnerable to recruitment by separatist organizations.
Security forces have been accused in recent years of carrying out a string of kidnappings and brutal murders of local men, the vast majority of which are not investigated.
Jalal Faiz, originally from Balochistan, recently conducted field research across the province as part of his doctorate at the University of Westminster in England.
He said students in Balochistan “think their culture, their language, their history” is overlooked in high school.
“They grow up believing the state does not care about them, that the state wants to control them, that the state does not consider them as equals,” Faiz said. “Even if they aren’t actively doing something to support it, they all support the Baloch independence movement.”
Daanish Mustafa, an associate professor at Kings College London who spent years conducting research in rural Balochistan, which is home to 70 percent of the province’s population, said part of the problem was a breakdown of the traditional Baloch way of life and the failure of the state to fill the void.
He said communities were falling apart, leading to a militant form of juvenile delinquency.
“The separatist movement has been there for the longest time,” Mustafa said.
“There used to be a set of moderating influences on children,” he added. “You remove those, the social constraints – not just parents and family but a society where everyone was dependent on each other – you break it apart and now you have these sort of autonomous family units. And then you expect these young men to not get up to trouble?”