It’s rare to get a glimpse of what life in Somalia is actually like, especially in those parts controlled by al-Shabaab. A new report by Human Rights Watch into the experiences of that troubled country’s children gives us some insight into what growing up there is really like. It’s not easy reading. By SIMON ALLISON.
The London conference on Somalia kicks off on Thursday. I’ve been highly sceptical about how useful it’s going to be, and what the motivations behind it are, but the one thing it does do admirably is to reiterate – in case we’d forgotten – just how difficult it is to live, work and survive in Somalia. As if to illustrate this message, Human Rights Watch released a new report this week looking into what it’s like to be a child in Somalia at the moment. Their findings were a terrifying illustration of just how bad things are in some parts of the country; a disturbing insight into the daily lives of Somali society’s most vulnerable people.
The problems begin at school. Schools are in bad to terrible shape all over the country, with the possible exception of the autonomous region of Somaliland. But in areas controlled by al-Shabaab, the fundamentalist Islamist militant group that controls most of southern Somalia, bad education is the least of children’s problems. The report, entitled No Place for Children, explains that schools in these areas face the triple threat of teachers being intimidated into teaching al-Shabaab-approved subjects only, of boys being forced into fighting for al-Shabaab and girls into forced marriages, and of students being used as human shields to protect al-Shabaab fighters. The report was compiled from a number of interviews of refugees who managed to escape Somalia into Kenya, and it quotes liberally from these eyewitness accounts.
Here’s one from a child who managed to survive his human shield experience:
“Al-Shabaab came into the compound of the school and told us to stay in class. It was noon and they set up a Hobiye [a surface to air rocket launcher] and they started launching from inside the school compound. They set it up in the “playing” area… Some students tried to get out of the compound but they were turned back by al-Shabaab. We were trapped for two hours and they were firing in the direction of K-4 [territory held by the internationally recognised Transitional Federal Government and African Union troops]. There was incoming fire coming back at our direction. There were five rockets hitting around the school compound. One landed as we were released and it killed eight students who were walking home. They came in a series of four rockets. The students killed were 17, 16, 18, and 19 years old.”
Some students are forcibly recruited into al-Shabaab from their schools, or even from their homes; abduction is perhaps a better term for it. One boy described how he’d been chosen to play in a special football match, along with a few of his friends. When they arrived at the field they instead found al-Shabaab militants waiting for them, and were transported to remote training camps. Sometimes, promises of money and mobile phones were used to lure youths to the camps, to the same end.
Once in the camps, the training begins. “In the morning they told us we were going for training,” said a 13-year old boy from Mogadishu quoted in the report. “They told us to jump in holes, climb over piles of trees. It was a hectic training and difficult for my age. At times they told us to crawl or roll on the ground or crawl between metal poles without touching them. It was difficult. We had to do push-ups, walk in a funny style. It was so difficult. After two weeks training, they gave us pistols and a card, made us mark it, put it at a distance, and told us to shoot that mark.” Children are whipped and cut if they don’t perform well enough, and are also given intensive religious training emphasising the importance of jihad.
To complete the transformation from child to child soldier, children are sent into towns controlled by al-Shabaab to enforce their draconian laws. They are given whips to punish businessmen who fail to close their shop during prayer time, women who aren’t dressed appropriately, and youths who listen to music on their mobiles phones. Said one 15-year old boy: “I was given two jobs, to whip women and to punish boys who had music on their mobile phones. I would make them swallow the memory card. I made 20 youths swallow the cards and I must have whipped 50 women. I would go with older men backing me up. They were about 30 years old and there were five of them. They would stand with me and force me. I felt bad to whip someone my mother’s age. Other children were given similar jobs.”
Few escape from the camps – failed attempts are usually punished with a beheading, which the other children in the camp are forced to watch as a warning. Or else their families are targeted, as happened to this girl who ran away. It’s hard to comprehend the horror of her account. “[Al-Shabaab] went to my house to my parents and said, “We want your child.” My parents refused. They killed my parents, my four brothers, and three of my four sisters. The girls were crying and then the other boys tried to defend my parents. Only my 10-year-old sister and I survived. I wasn’t there. I came and found my sister crying and the bodies only. My sister was crying and saying, ‘Go away. They will kill you and I can’t live alone if they kill you.’ I just got my sister and fled… We left the bodies and my sister and I ran away.”
The training is designed to prepare older boys (mid to late teens) for the frontline of al-Shabaab’s war with government and African Union soldiers, and to prepare girls and younger boys to take supplies to the frontlines and carry wounded militants back. Boys are often used to lead the charge for al-Shabaab. Abdikarim, age 15, was one of the few to make it back alive. “Then they took us to fight. It was between al-Shabaab and the TFG. The fighting started at about 5am. All the young children were taken to the first row of the fighting. I was there. We were defeated. Several of the young children there were killed, including several of my classmates. Out of all my classmates – about 100 boys – only two of us escaped, the rest were killed. Other children were also there on the front lines, about 300. The children were cleaned off. The children all died and the bigger soldiers ran away.”
For girls, the threats from al-Shabaab are different. They are unlikely to be sent to man the frontlines, although they certainly get close, but there is also a constant threat of forced marriage and sexual violence. The HRW report indicates that there is a systematic campaign to force young girls into marrying al-Shabaab fighters, and that families are threatened if they refuse consent; there have been examples of parents being killed in retaliation, or brothers being forced into training camps. The process of identifying suitable child-brides often began in the school, making it even more dangerous for girls to attempt an education. One teacher described how it happened: “It was tea break, exactly at 10am. The girls and boys were separated [by al-Shabaab] at break and they were not allowed to play. They asked the girls to stand and paraded them. They looked and picked 15- and 16-year-old girls, one was 17 years old. They took 12 girls in total. They were told they should join. They said… the girls were to become al-Shabaab wives. After this incident all the girls over age 15 ran away or dropped out of school. 150 girls dropped out of school.”
There is also widespread sexual violence practised against girls, both from combatants and civilians. Like in so many countries, there is heavy stigma attached to the victims of rape, so it often goes unreported. But evidence collected by Human Rights Watch suggests it is commonplace. This is one illustrative story from a 17-year-old girl: “My younger sister and I were sent one night to go to the store to buy things. Then al-Shabaab appeared in front of us. There were very many. They caught us. They beat us but my sister managed to escape from them. They told me, ‘You will be taken to the station. Why are you walking around at this hour? We will arrest you.’ But they didn’t take me to the station. They raped me. I got pregnant and have this small baby. There were six but I went unconscious after two so I don’t know if all six raped me. They used the butt of the gun to pierce my eye [indicating her left eye which was obviously damaged and which she said was blind]. Then they just left me.”
It is important to remember that while al-Shabaab is by far the worst perpetrator of violence against children, the Transitional Federal Government is by no means immune. While they don’t usually press-gang children into military service (although there have been some cases of this), there is very little screening of new recruits and many under-age soldiers are allowed to sign up. For some children, this might seem advantageous, as it provides a steady income and allows them to provide for their families; nonetheless, this is not a choice that any child should be allowed to make. The TFG are also accused of mistreating child soldiers that are captured from al-Shabaab, treating them just the same as adult prisoners.
The bottom line is that being a child in Somalia is horrendously difficult, especially for those living near one of the many conflict zones. The horrors described in the Human Rights Watch report – and there are many more than I’ve been able to include in this story – are exactly what the international community should be doing everything in its power to stop. Let’s hope that this is the motivation at the forefront of everyone’s thinking at Thursday’s London conference on Somalia. DM
Photo: Internally displaced children wait to receive food rations from al-Qaeda at the Ala-yasir IDP camp for al Shabaab militias in Lower Shabelle, 50 km (31 miles) south of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. REUTERS/Feisal Omar.
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