Somali children at risk of death on the front line

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The Independent Online

The brutal reality of childhood in Somalia is laid bare today in a harrowing report that says children under the age of 15 were systematically recruited to fight in the country's decades-long civil war.

Amnesty International warned of a "lost generation" caused by the escalating fighting amid further warnings from the UN that two million children were threatened by a food crisis unfolding in the Horn of Africa. The report said that more thought and money went into protecting shipments of consumer goods from being attacked by pirates off Somalia than on saving children whose lives were destroyed by the war.

"Somalia is not only a humanitarian crisis; it is a human rights crisis. As a child in Somalia you risk death all the time," said Michelle Kagari, Amnesty's deputy director for Africa.

"You can be killed, recruited [as a soldier] and sent to the front line, punished by al-Shabaab for listening to music or wearing the wrong clothes. The humanitarian crisis facing children in Somalia is also the result of al-Shabaab denying access to aid in the last couple of years," she said.

The organisation met children who recounted being at school or playing football when al-Shabaab came to recruit. A 13-year-old girl from Mogadishu said: "Al-Shabaab came in one morning. They said to the teachers that all of the children should move out of class. There was a car outside and they forced the children in. One teacher was killed because he refused to obey."

Testimonies of those that were forced to attend al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam training camps suggest boys are trained to handle guns and explosives while girls are used for domestic work or are forced to marry commanders. A 21-year-old man told researchers that armed groups including al-Shabaab and Jabathul Islamiya used teenagers to plant explosives in Mogadishu. "The bombs given to them came from Yemen and Eritrea. One of the leaders used to give young people between $1 and $100 and give maps and instructions to the young people to do it."

The 90-page study, based on interviews with 200 Somalis who have fled to neighbouring Kenya and Djibouti, reports that children as young as the age of eight have been recruited by fighting groups.

In the past 20 years of fighting in Somalia, more than 2.5 million people are believed to have fled their homes and 750,000 of them are registered as refugees in neighbouring countries. Somalia has become a huddle of warlord chieftainships using Islam to control land and undermine the western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the peacekeepers of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom).

The Amnesty report states that in the first two weeks of May this year, 398 of the 933 patients being treated for weapons-related injuries in Mogadishu hospitals were children under five. The report quotes a man from Beledweyne, near the border with Ethiopia, whose five children were killed by stray projectiles. "I had to pick up their bodies and bury them. The oldest was 12 and the youngest was two years old."

Citing UN figures that one in four children in Somalia is undernourished, Amnesty says al-Shabaab contributed to the current food crisis in the Horn of Africa by blocking aid because it considers food agencies to be linked to the TFG, Amisom or their donors. In recent weeks, however, as the drought in the Horn of Africa has got worse, al-Shabaab has lifted its ban of foreign aid organisations, and food has been delivered to areas of the war-torn country controlled by the Islamist group.