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Reporter’s Diary: Heal Somalia’s former child soldiers, heal a nation

Even by Mogadishu standards, late September was particularly violent.

Amino Hussein Hassan, a female law student, was shot dead on her university campus. Yahye Amir, a prominent economics professor and political analyst, escaped an assassination attempt when a bomb strapped to his car exploded, killing his brother. And Ahmed Mukhtar Salah from the minority Bantu ethnic group was beaten and burnt to death by a mob after his nephew married a woman from an inferior clan.

Violence has been a way of life in Somalia since the outbreak of the civil war in 1991, seeping deep into the nation's marrow as clan conflict gradually morphed into an all-out war against the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist group al-Shabab. The layers of violence that people have had to digest is one of the key problems for building a peaceful and healthier society, Laetitia Bader, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told me recently.

Most often, those who bear the life-long consequences are the poor, the politically marginalised, and young people. In particular, the thousands of children who must deal with the trauma of years on the front lines.

In May, I travelled to the capital, Mogadishu � as I have done regularly since 2012 � to report on a crisis that, save for some international NGOs and human rights organisations, few seem to talk about: child soldiers.

There, I met Abdi, 16, a former child soldier. Intelligent and eloquent, he had been a star pupil at the Koranic school in his home town, about 55 miles from the capital. In 2009, at the age of seven, his teacher took him and seven other boys to join al-Shabab.

For two years, Abdi lived in a camp with about three dozen other young recruits. By the time he was eight, he had learned how to drive a car and shoot a gun. By nine, he took part in his first raid in the village of Darussalam Mubarak, where he witnessed an assassination: a man killed by three bullets to the back.

As horrific as that experience was, the image that has most haunted Abdi for years is that of the severed head of a young man his al-Shabab camp commander brandished before the recruits as a warning: this is what happens to informants.

Even now after all these years, I have nightmares, Abdi told me. Sometimes I wake up screaming in the middle of the night.

A disposable front line

While al-Shabab's use of children as soldiers is nothing new, in the last several years the number of child soldiers has increased markedly.

In al-Shabab's heyday around 2010, when it controlled vast swaths of the country, including a sizable chunk of the capital, persuasion and indoctrination were enough to ensure a steady supply of young fighters. Since 2016, increased attacks by the Somali national army and US and African Union troops have resulted in a loss of territory for the group. Most recently, on October 16, the US military announced that it had carried out one of the deadliest airstrikes against al-Shabab, killing 60 militants in the Mudug region.

So, desperate for more foot soldiers, al-Shabab has turned to the abduction and forced recruitment of minors. Accurate numbers are difficult to come by. Child Soldiers International calculates that there has been a 269 percent increase in the number of children within the ranks of armed groups in Somalia between 2015, when there were 903 documented cases, to 2017, with 3,335 cases. Meanwhile, according to a May report on children and armed conflict presented by the UN secretary-general to the General Assembly, 1,770 children were recruited as soldiers in 2017 alone, with al-Shabab doing the vast majority of the recruitment. The overall number is likely even higher: UNICEF Somalia estimates that as many as 6,000 children and youths are part of armed groups in the country.

In a single military operation carried out by the Somali National Army and US troops in January on a base near the town of Baledogle, 70 miles northwest of Mogadishu, for instance, 36 child soldiers between the ages of eight and 13 were rescued.

Often untrained and ill-equipped, these child soldiers make for a disposable front line on the battlefield, protecting older, more experienced fighters. This makes them more likely to suffer physical wounds and psychological trauma.

Young defectors

I first met Abdi and other boys through a man I'll call Hussein. I am not using his real name, or identifying his location, since in addition to running an orphanage he manages a centre that works with young al-Shabab defectors. About 120 boys now live there, two hours' drive from the capital, but at one point it housed as many 520.

Source: IRIN