- Associated Press - Thursday, March 1, 2012

PESHAWAR, Pakistan The boy was 2 when his mother dumped him on the streets and 4 when he spent his first night in a tiny prison cell, being sexually assaulted by an older inmate.

Prostitution for money and shelter followed, then hashish and glue-sniffing.

Now 10 and gangly, he fidgeted and stared at the ground, speaking in a near-whisper.

“I’m ashamed,” he said.

Yet in this rugged frontier city in northwestern Pakistan, where people carry guns as casually as they would a daily newspaper, this boy has hope. He has found refuge in what for Pakistan is relatively rare: a charity-run boarding school for homeless, drug-addicted children.

Around Peshawar, heroin sells for less than 20 cents a hit.

“It’s the cheapest place in the world to get heroin,” said Mazahar Ali, the school’s manager.

He gestured beyond the school’s high walls. Heroin and just about every other vice are just a short walk away, he said.

The drugs all come from nearby Afghanistan, which provides 90 percent of the world’s opium, from which heroin is made.

For Pakistan, the result is more than 4 million addicts. Some of the youngest end up in mud-walled rooms being drilled in extreme Muslim doctrine by Taliban extremists who roam relatively freely in Peshawar.

“Sometimes the militants take these children to North Waziristan and teach them to be suicide bombers, and sometimes they give the children drugs and the child might not even know that he is going to be blown up,” Mr. Ali said.

At the school, a boy named Osama told of memorizing the Koran, Islam’s holy book, while Taliban militants hovered over him.

He said he was tortured. He escaped, and a month ago, he was found sleeping on the floor of a ramshackle hotel, said Umaima Zia, the school psychologist.

On the lawn in front of the four-story school, Osama sat cross-legged on a chair in the afternoon sun, his small body swaying as he recited Koranic verses to his fellow students.

A single working woman, Ms. Zia, 25, is unusual in this conservative region, where girls often are married off soon after puberty.

Quick to smile, she gently draws out the children’s accounts of what they have endured.

She brings stuffed animals to the school, and even the older boys cling to them. She gave the sexually assaulted boy a furry lion-shaped hat that he rarely takes off except for prayers.

That child’s mother was found a while ago, but she would not take him back.

“She didn’t want me,” he muttered, almost inaudibly. “She said I was garbage.”

Children generally stay three months at the boarding school, long enough for detoxification.

The school, run by a family-owned charity called the Dost Foundation, has 32 boarders, all boys. A separate facility for girls is planned because mixing of the sexes is shunned in Pakistan.

Ms. Zia told of finding one little girl knocking on car windows asking about 60 cents to bare her chest to the occupants. She was 6.

“It’s sad, so sad that there is nothing for girls here,” she said. “Most of the girls are homeless. Not so many are drug users. Many are scavengers, but they are very vulnerable to abuse.”

Eleven of the boys in the school are intravenous drug users, and two have AIDS.

Dr. Sikander Khan, whose family started the charity 20 years ago, said the AIDS problem is getting worse.

Pakistan is a poor country, and 70 percent of its 180 million people are younger than 30, with more children using drugs intravenously and AIDS rates rising, said Dr. Khan, a physician who interned in New York. He estimated roughly 7,000 children were living homeless on the streets of Peshawar.

Dr. Khan said roughly half of Pakistan’s heroin addicts are believed to be intravenous users. Although the United Nations estimates there are 97,400 HIV patients, just 4,112 are registered.

Dr. Khan’s charity also supports community schools and provides rehabilitation facilities for adult addicts as well as vocational training for young boys and girls.

It gets money from the European Union, the United States and the United Nations, but Dr. Khan said the charity is short of funds and has had to close some of the schools.

“There is a lot of [international] funding for infrastructure like roads, but when it comes to drugs, when it comes to street children and shelter homes, the funding is not there or it is very small,” he said.

The trend might be changing, if only because of fear that the neglected children will become Taliban fodder.

Dr. Khan said there is evidence this recruiting is happening. There is no certainty the children are being turned into terrorists, but he sees a growing recognition that they are exploitable and need help.

Inam, 15, has been through detoxification at the boarding school several times.

Short and squat, he is notorious as Peshawar’s most accomplished pickpocket - so notorious that he was the subject of a documentary.

He has his own gang. He has been in prison on attempted-murder charges. He keeps police officers on his payroll and has scars on his leg from acid thrown by rivals who tried to steal his gun.

A month ago, he discovered he has HIV, and his tough-guy image crumbled. He thinks he got the virus from sharing needles with other drug users. As he spoke his eyes grew wet, but he quickly wiped them with his sleeve and composed himself.

On the wall of the children’s dormitory, a poster tries to offer hope with words in English written against a backdrop of hellish red flames:

“I am in hell, but that doesn’t mean I will stay forever.”

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