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In Somalia war, children wage jihad

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  • In Somalia war, children wage jihad

    In Somalia war, children wage jihad

    MOGADISHU--At the ripe old age of 13 and after two years of military training with the insurgent group Hezb al-Islamiya, Husein Abdi is proud to have been inducted into Somalia's fighting brotherhood.

    "I believe the good die young, so there are no age restrictions for one to be God's soldier," said the boy, manning a position behind sandbags on a street corner in Mogadishu's Tarbunka neighborhood.

    "This is what my friends and I have chosen without being forced and I am happy being who I am," he added, fumbling the butt of an AK-47 that almost looks larger than him.

    Husein volunteered to point out that he became a gunman in one of the world's most violent countries of his own will. Yet his words have an oddly rehearsed ring to them.

    Child enrollment in hostilities is more than the suicidal teenage craze of a lost generation that has known nothing outside the 18-year-old civil conflict. It is now a systematic and deliberate drive by Somalia's countless militias.

    All players in the latest bout of fighting -- which has pitted supporters of the internationally-backed government against hardline insurgents -- are involved in recruiting children, UNICEF said.

    Use of child soldiers "is regrettably not a new phenomenon in Somalia, but what seems to be new is the widespread and systematic nature of recruitment and this includes all sides," a senior UNICEF expert on child protection said.

    "There seems to be an active and deliberate campaign to recruit children," UNICEF Somalia's Isabella Castrogiovanni told AFP in Nairobi.

    Mohamed Abdulkadir Mursal is a 15-year-old Somali government soldier. His brother has already been killed in combat and he said he was determined to die with a gun in his hand.

    "I know it is not a simple job for a child, but I don't care about what others say because I have already chosen to live and die this way," said Mursal.

    No one knows exactly how many child soldiers there are in Somalia but experts estimate thousands have been roped into the ranks of armed groups.

    UNICEF estimates there are 250,000 child soldiers across the globe.

    Thousands of them are in Somalia, which has not known any effective central authority since the 1991 ouster of former president Mohamed Siad Barre.

    Desperately low school enrollment levels, poverty, lack of social development schemes and inadequate birth registration systems make recruitment all the easier.

    According to a yet to be released study by UNICEF, it takes place in schools and camps for the estimated 1.3 million people who have been internally displaced, mainly over the past three years.

    Many observers and rights groups suspect the same has been happening in the refugee camps set up in neighboring countries, notably in Kenya.

    Recruitment is either forced or "voluntary," when desire for revenge is stirred in young boys whose families have been affected by war.

    Husein Abdi dropped out of secondary school in 2007 shortly after Ethiopian forces rolled into Somalia. He joined hardline Islamist militants in Mogadishu after his uncle was killed in a gunbattle with Ethiopian forces.

    "The Ethiopian forces killed my uncle and forced my family to flee Mogadishu so that's why I took my gun to fight the colonial soldiers and their stooges," he said.

    UNICEF described as disturbing the emergence of ballooning numbers of military training camps specifically set up targeting child soldiers.

    "There is also growing evidence of training camps inside Somalia. It's quite alarming," said Castrogiovanni.

    It is believed that some of the bases are run by foreigners from Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, with some even focusing on suicide attacks.

    "There are foreign forces deployed in our country," said Husein, referring to African Union peacekeepers from Burundi and Uganda.

    "That's why we are still fighting to defend our religion. We need a pure Islamic regime in this country and we are ready to sacrifice ourselves for that," he said.

    With a red turban wrapped around his head, the young boy reflected that he had never considered himself to be a child soldier. "But why not? After all, I don't believe it's a crime."

    Recruitment of children is a violation of the international Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the use of children under 15 in combat is a war crime.

    According to child soldiers and rights activists in Mogadishu, young boys are easily lured by warlords and military leaders, notably with promises of food and rewards such as bicycles.

    "We don't get regular salaries from the government but when there is fighting, the money flows," said Ali Yare, a 13-year-old fighter.

    "So we sometimes create violence by shooting our opponents," said the young government soldier, pulling out fresh khat (mild narcotic plant) leaves from a green plastic bag.

    Husein however said that he received 50 dollars almost every month for his work as well as four dollars of phone credit.

    The Islamist insurgent factions offer better conditions, with more regular stipends and a ban on khat.

    "We don't allow our fighters to be drug addicts, they are clean and not gangsters. They are always disciplined," said an insurgent commander who asked not to be named.

    According to rights activists, girls have also been recruited mainly by insurgents, primarily as wives but also to provide logistical support in the war effort and gather intelligence.

  • #2
    This is not exclusive to Islamic militant groups. It is a sad fact that child soldiers, although condemned by the UN, are often used by many rebel groups.