January 16, 2012
Reports from the Somali Transitional Federal Government, human rights organisations and local residents indicate that al-Qaeda affiliated militants have stepped up forced and systematic recruitment of children since fighting escalated in Somalia last October.
Local officials and residents told Sabahi that al-Shabaab fighters have been roaming the streets in vehicles equipped with loudspeakers, calling for residents, especially children, to join them in the fighting.
"The recruitment of children in Somalia by armed groups has grown considerably since the fighting escalated in October, and the number of child soldiers involved in the fighting is increasing day by day," said Abdirizakh Sheikh, an official at a children's rights organisation in Somalia.
Sheikh said children are used as participants in the fighting or as transporters of supplies, ammunition and food during fighting.
"The recruitment of children stems in part from the unwillingness of adults to join the Islamist militants and the fact that underage children are easily lured with false promises or gifts, such as mobile phones," he said. "In many cases, the recruitment of children is forced, and in rural villages, gunmen give poor families facing hardship bags of food in return for sending their children to training camps."
According to human-rights groups and child-protection agencies, the number of parents and guardians who have reported the disappearance of their children is rising at an alarming rate.
Faduma, a 48-year-old mother of four, told Sabahi that her 16-year-old son was kidnapped and forcibly recruited by al-Shabaab militants.
"My son went to school and was kidnapped on his way back home," she said. "I searched for him for three weeks, and finally got a phone call from him telling me he was in a training camp. I could hear shooting during the call. He told me he was going to participate in the fighting. He is very young; how can he participate in the fighting? I want them to release my son immediately."
Faduma requested that her full name not be used for her family's safety because her son is still with al-Shabaab.
"There are a lot of mothers like me looking for their children who were taken away by al-Shabaab militants," she said.
Abdullahi Abdinuur, 46, a father of six from an area controlled by al-Shabaab, said, "When Kenyan troops entered Somali territory and the fighting in southern Somalia escalated, the al-Shabaab movement resorted to forcibly kidnapping young men and school children to recruit them and make them participate in the fighting."
"In some cases, al-Shabaab leaders have demanded that fathers send their children to training camps and that school teachers force their students to memorise the Qur'an. They have also demanded that teachers in some schools send students to training camps in order to carry out operations and participate in the war," Abdinuur said.
"We fear the consequences of refusing their demands, so we send our children to areas outside the control of the movement so they do not fall in the hands of the militants," he said.
Abdirahman Wabber of the Somali Peace Line human rights and child protection organisation told Sabahi that poverty and lack of education are the main factors for the increase in child soldiers in Somalia. He said a lack of education has exposed thousands of Somali children to the risk of falling into the hands of militants.
Wabber said his organisation is conducting awareness campaigns in schools and camps for displaced people to try to prevent the recruitment of children by armed groups. He called for greater efforts to put an end to the use of children in armed conflict in Somalia.
Omar Ugaas, who works for a local organisation that monitors the status of children in Somalia, said, "The greatest danger facing children in Somalia is forced recruitment by the parties to the conflict, especially the al-Shabaab movement, the biggest offender with regard to the recruitment of children."
Ugaas said children are paying a heavy price in the ongoing war in Somalia, as they have become an easy target for Islamist militants seeking to recruit them. He said that forced recruitment of children is legally and humanely reprehensible.
"The recruitment of underage children and putting them in the line of fire is a most serious violation of international law; it is, in fact, a war crime," he said. "All parties to the conflict must be aware of this fact. But it is clear that al-Shabaab movement resorts to desperate measures, such as recruiting children, whenever it is under pressure from the Somali armed forces and their allies, because the movement suffers a shortage of fighters."
Children's rights organisations say the exact number of children recruited by armed groups is unknown. Ugaas said this is because al-Shabaab does not allow human rights organisations to inspect their military positions.
Some human rights groups estimate that child soldiers make up 75% of all al-Shabaab fighters. Dozens of child soldiers are often seen manning al-Shabaab checkpoints and camps, and fighting on the front lines.
Al-Shabaab admits to the presence of child soldiers in its ranks, but says they are volunteers.
Abdulkadir Abu Maath, an al-Shabaab leader, told Sabahi, "There are children participating in jihad with us, but no one forced them to join the fighting. They are driven by their resolve to participate in jihad to defend the religion and confront the invading enemy."
Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a leading figure in al-Shabaab, also previously admitted in a speech at a mosque in the Eilasha area near Mogadishu that al-Shabaab is using underage children in the war against the forces of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
"Children are participating in a major way in the jihad against the enemy and are willing to die in defence of their country and their religion," he said.
In a recent statement, the TFG denounced the forced recruitment of hundreds of children and students by al-Shabaab. The statement said the Somali government affirms its primary role in providing protection for all children, particularly those affected by armed conflict.
The TFG called on the international community to assist in the rescue of Somali children from extremism by providing support for rehabilitation programs for children affected by armed conflict, creating and providing opportunities for education and decent living, and providing support for their mental health.
"Let us be very clear: the Somali government is absolutely opposed to the use of children in armed conflict," Somali Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali told reporters in Mogadishu last November. "We want children to go to schools and build a bright future for themselves and for the country."
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