MOGADISHU, Somalia – Sharif says he was 10 when his religious teacher led his class into a poor neighborhood of Somalia’s capital to pray for a sick relative. Suddenly Islamist fighters jumped from the shadows and ordered the children onto buses, the beginning of a terrifying two years as a child soldier.
The class was taken to a training base in the south of the anarchic country, Sharif says, where Somali and foreign instructors showed them how to use weapons and set ambushes. The boy says before battle he was sometimes given drugs that made him feel like he could “pick up a tank and throw it aside like a telephone.”
The recruitment of child fighters in Somalia is on the rise, both by the government and particularly by the country’s most powerful Islamist militia, al-Shabab, whose name means “the youth.” Al-Shabab’s recruitment of children may partly stem from a lack of willing adults, who have been alienated by Islamist attacks on traditional Sufi saints and bans on everything from chewing qat, a mildly narcotic leaf, to school bells and music.
“Better informed, smarter, older people are saying they don’t want to join” al-Shabab, said E.J. Hogendoorn, a Nairobi-based analyst at the International Crisis Group. “The sad reality with modern infantry weapons is that all you really need is a kid to operate them.”
UNICEF, the section of the U.N. dealing with children’s rights, said children as young as 9 are being targeted and often taken through force or deception, said Denise Shepherd-Johnson, a Nairobi-based spokeswoman, citing information received from monitors in Somalia.
“Children are being systematically recruited and used in ever larger numbers for military and related purposes by all of the major combatant groups,” she said. “The number of bases and camps used to train these children is commensurately widespread and appears to be growing.”
An aid worker in Kenya tracking child recruitment says cases verified by their partner organizations in Somalia have risen from five in September to a high of 26 in January, when Somalia was awash with rumors of an imminent government offensive. Since the government toned down its rhetoric, the numbers have fallen slightly to 20 children recruited in February and 18 in March.
The figures represent a small fraction of child fighters, the aid worker said, because they only record new recruits and many cases could not be fully documented due to insecurity. Staff often reported seeing scores of children in camps but were only able to verify the details of one or two, she said. She asked for her name and her organization’s name to be withheld to protect staff from retribution.
Human Rights Watch documented several cases of children fighting in militias in a report released last week. A mother said her 14- and 12-year-old sons had been seized by militants from an Islamic school. Her uncle was killed for trying to find them and she stopped trying after receiving death threats, the report said.
Sharif escaped last month, waiting until nightfall and then sneaking past the guards with six friends. Now the slender, dark-eyed boy is too afraid to go home. If he does, his family could be killed by the insurgents who control their neighborhood.
As he talks about his fears, his quick smile disappears and his eyes drop to the floor. His voice slows to a mumble. There are many things he doesn’t want to talk about: the weapons training; the battles he says he was in; what happened to his classmates.
“I don’t know,” he says at first when asked what happened to the children taken along with him. Then later, so quietly the translator asks him to repeat himself, “I think they are dead.”
Sharif’s parents, whom he hasn’t seen for two years, don’t know their son is being cared for by African Union peacekeepers, who allowed The Associated Press to talk with Sharif on the condition his last name wasn’t used in order to protect him and his family.
Children have been used by militants across Africa because they are easier to indoctrinate than adults and easier to care for. They also make up the bulk of the Somali population , more than half the country’s estimated 7.5 million residents are under 18.
One al-Shabab fighter, Abuhamza Abul-kadir, admitted the movement used child fighters but said they were volunteers.
“We have many young fighters, I do not want to say a figure,” Abul-kadir said. “Some of them are as young as 13 but we never force them to join us, they are driven by their own will for the ongoing jihad.”
The Islamists are not the only group with child fighters. Col. Ahmed Aden Dhayow says the government also has under-18s among its ranks.
“I have seen number of child soldiers recruited by the government but all of them chose the profession to shift for their lives and as survival,” Dhayow said. “We never intentionally recruit children.”
Government-allied militia Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama and government forces also use child fighters.
Mohamed Ahmed Ali, a 14-year-old recruit from the government-allied militia, said he chose to join after his religious teacher urged him. He said a couple of hundred children fought in the militia. At 14, he and some of his clan consider that he is already an adult. Some fighters with the militia were as young as 10, he said.
“Our Quranic teacher asked us to take up arms against al-Shabab and we accepted his plea,” Ali said by phone from the central Somali town of Dusamareb. “It is an Islamic duty to fight these misled fighters with distorted ideologies.”
The teen said he’d like to continue his studies, but that “education comes when we finish off al-Shabab.”