Some are drugged, others are brainwashed, and some get paid a few dollars for every month they fight.
Child soldiers are often used in frontline combat, serve as human mine detectors, participate in suicide missions, and act as spies, messengers, and sex slaves. The use of child soldiers is on the rise in Somalia, and schools are being used as recruitment centers.
Most Somalis are frightened to speak openly about the recruitment, but those who can afford to do so are sending their children out of the country to safety.
Hundreds of Somali youngsters are recruited and trained in camps in southern Somalia by the al-Shabaab, a Somali insurgent faction embracing a radical form of Islam similar to the harsh, conservative brand practiced by Afghanistan's Taliban regime.
Its fighters, numbering several thousand strong, are battling Somalia's weakened government and have been branded a terrorist group with ties to al-Qaeda by the United States and other Western countries.
The insurgent group allegedly uses young Somalis to terrorize the region and pays them $50 for every month they fight.
Fifteen-year-old Mohammed Ismail Hassan fled to neighboring Kenya after he was forcibly recruited by al-Shabaab in the central Somali district, Ceeldhere. He narrated to The New American about his ordeal at the hands of the Islamist group.
“It was one year ago when I was recruited to al-Shabaab. We were around 20 youngsters. Our Quranic teacher convinced us that when the Ethiopians are gone [from our country] … Somalia would be in the hands of an Islamic government, so we, youngsters were needed much in terms of defending that government,” he said.
“But after several months, I realized that I was fighting Somalis in every battle, and whenever I asked why are we fighting our brothers? Our Amir [leader] would reply, ‘They have deserted Islam [Murtad] and are fighting for the enemy of Allah.”
“Before I escaped this group, we fought with forces loyal to Ahmed Islam [a Hisbul Islam high-ranking official] in Dhobley [a southern Somali border town]. We defeated them, so I decided to flee with [their remaining members] to a border point, and there I joined hundreds of Somalis waiting to enter Kenya.”
Prior to his escape, Somali and foreign instructors showed the child-soldiers how to use weapons and set ambushes. The boy said before battle he was sometimes given drugs that made him feel like he could kill anyone without any fear.
The people leading the children’s training were foreigners who speak English or Arabic.
In March 2009, al-Shabaab recruited 600 children, some of them as young as nine years of age.
The UN reported that the extremist Islamist group generally doesn't recruit girls for combat roles, but does use them to carry out tasks like cooking, cleaning, transporting detonators, and collecting intelligence. The report identified an al-Shabaab training camp near the southern city of Kismayo, where about 120 girls learned intelligence-gathering techniques and how to transport explosives and drive. Some of the girls were also recruited to marry the male fighters.
Al-Shabaab is importing fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Chechnya. It even boasts having young Somali-Americans from Minnesota and Washington State to boost its forces.
Several Somali-American youths, mainly from United States’ Somali-inhabited Minneapolis region have reportedly returned back to their war-torn Somalia to fight alongside the insurgents, according to U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Al-Shabaab has publicly declared that it has many foreign jihadists in its highest ranks, fighting alongside its local fighters in the war-torn nation.
Most notable is an American, Abu Mansour al-Amriki, who has been featured in many video messages sent to fellow Americans to join the “Holy War” in Somalia.
The United States has warned that the Horn of Africa nation is turning out to be an al-Qaeda safe haven, with terrorist-linked groups like al-Shabaab controlling large swaths of southern and central regions and waging deadly insurgency against the UN-backed Somali government. Along with other insurgent groups such as Hisbul Islam, al-Shabaab has trapped the country's UN- and U.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government into a small part of Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
In October 2009, contrary to the international refugee laws, Somali recruiters, claiming to act on behalf of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), openly enlisted young refugees from Dadaab camps in northeast Kenya, near the Somali border, for a new force intended to fight in Somalia.
"Permitting recruitment of fighters in refugee camps undermines the very purpose of the camps — to be a place of refuge from the conflict," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
The young refugee recruitment drive is being organized by Kenyan government officials — who have issued numerous but contradictory denials about their role — as well as exiled Somalis living in Kenya. Many Western and regional governments share the goal of routing the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab.
The U.S.-based human rights watchdog says recruiters have been telling the young men in the camps and nearby towns that their effort is backed by the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union. Some are even saying that recruits will be deployed as part of a new UN force in Somalia.
Amnesty International, for its part, estimates that more than 250,000 children are fighting in active conflicts around the globe. In the last decade, two million children have been killed in combat and six million were seriously injured.
Colonel Abdullahi Aden, a former Somali commander, was interviewed by The New American. He urged both sides, the Somali transitional government and al-Shabaab, especially the insurgent group, to stop using children as soldiers.
“Children are the leaders of tomorrow, al-Shabaab should stop brainwashing the small children with religion. Why can’t they [senior members of al-Shabaab] join the war on the frontline if they are truly fighting for religion? Why are we not hearing of any suicide bomber who was a high-ranking official? We only hear of brainwashed youngsters taking their lives in the most horrible way,” Abdullahi said.
Hussein Moulid Bosh is a Kenyan-born Somali freelance journalist, covering stories around East Africa and also the Horn of Africa countries, especially Somalia.
Photo: AP Images