Tue, Jun 16, 2009 - Page 16 News List

In Somalia, children wage jihad

Government and insurgent groups are recruiting and training child soldiers in a growing number of military camps

By Mustafa Haji Abdinur  /  AFP , MOGADISHU

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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 hard-line 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 said.

Mohammed Abdulkadir Mursal is a 15-year-old Somali government soldier. His brother has already been killed in combat and he said he is 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 Mohammed 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, recruitment 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 hard-line Islamist militants in Mogadishu after his uncle was killed in a gun battle 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.

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