Aid workers and observers in Somalia say an increasing number of child soldiers are being used by factions involved in the escalating violence in the country. They say most of the children are recruited or abducted by the militant Islamic group al-Shabab and suffer horrendous experiences on the battlefield.
The United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, estimates that thousands of children as young as 10 years old are involved in the fighting.
Isabella Castrogiovanni, head of the child protection unit at UNICEF Somalia, says the militant Islamic group al-Shabab recruits most of the minors.
She says the group gets children from schools, villages, and other communities, increasingly by force. She says that in one campaign, al-Shabab officials pressure families to hand over at least one of their children.
Once in the ranks, Castrogiovanni says children and other recruits have mobile phones containing short video clips to motivate them to fight. She describes one clip that she has seen.
“It’s basically one al-Shabab fighter who died and there are many people around him including very young people, and there is somebody who is sitting next to the body and just saying, you know, repeating over and over again, this person [who] has died is a martyr, he has died for the cause, he will go to heaven, and then again this mantra of the infidels, the jihad, the obligation to fight for the jihad, and so on,” said Castrogiovanni.
She says Somalia’s government, commonly called the TFG, also uses minors. Castrogiovanni says she thinks this is mostly because the TFG does not have proper structures and procedures to determine the real age of recruits.
“I mean, we are not talking of a national army the way other countries do have a national army, meaning a very structured, controlled, centralized, and everybody is registered,” she added. “There are several militia groups which are loosely associated with the TFG but maybe they are not accountable to the central TFG command structure.”
It is rare that al-Shabab talks to the press. There have been many independent reports of the group recruiting child soldiers.
Somali Ambassador to Kenya Mohamed Ali Nur tells VOA the the Somali government has a strict policy of not using child soldiers.
“We have [a] committee in the forces who [are] just making sure that soldiers, if recruited, that they [committee] check how old [is] that boy or girl, and make sure that they are not underage,” said nur.
In recent months, fighting has intensified between al-Shabab and the TFG. The United States considers al-Shabab a terrorist group linked to al-Qaida. The TFG was formed years ago through an international process to bring stability to the volatile country.
The African Union Mission in Somalia, AMISOM, has contributed troops to help stabilize the country and protect the government against al-Shabab attacks.
AMISOM spokesman Major Barigye Bahoku tells VOA most of the child soldiers his troops encounter say they were kidnapped by al-Shabab from Islamic schools and forced to fight. He says some parents who ask about their children or try to rescue them are killed.
Major Bahoku says at least three children every month surrender to AMISOM. He says the children describe horrific experiences.
” …witnessing their comrades dying on the front line, how they are buried in shallow graves, how those who try to defect or run away are killed,” he said. “It’s a horrendous situation.”
Major Bahoku says his troops also encounter children firing on the battlefield.
“We try the best we can under the circumstances,” he said. “If we are able to identify that these are underage children, we will possibly give them preference and maybe shout orders out to them to put down their guns and run away. Unfortunately we have got a language barrier problem.”
UNICEF Somalia’s Castrogiovanni says when children are in the line of fire, they are killed, maimed, or captured and jailed, with some lucky ones escaping. She says this is, in her words, “the worst one can imagine.”
Somalia has been at war since dictator Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991