A new report says Somalia’s al-Shabaab militants are forcing rural communities to hand over children as young as 8 years old for indoctrination and military training.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says al-Shabaab conscripts the children by subjecting elders and religious school teachers to beatings, abductions and intimidation tactics.
The group’s campaign has focused on the Bay region in southwestern Somalia, where communities were already ravaged by droughts and years of conflict, according to the report from the international rights group.
The campaign was first reported by VOA’s Somali service in September.
“These are communities which have already been hit by drought, very poor, struggling to survive,” said Laetitia Bader, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch who interviewed families affected by the campaign, which began in late September 2017.
According to HRW, the armed group has opened several training centers, under the guise of being religious schools in areas under their control. They use strengthened indoctrination, they teach children of a very young age and have pressured teachers into teaching al Shabaab approved programs in schools.
“The last two years have seen a dramatic increase in the abduction of children by al Shabab,” explains Zama Neff who heads the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. “Children have been taken from their schools, from their homes and from the streets. Nowhere is safe.”
HRW says hundreds of children have been affected. In one village alone, al-Shabaab abducted at least 50 boys and girls from two schools near Burhakaba town and took them to Bulo Fulay where the militant group runs schools and a major training facility.
The campaign has prompted hundreds of children to flee areas controlled by Al-Shabaab.
“A community’s only option to protect their children from recruitment was to send them into government controlled towns, often on their own, just to see if they can get a bit more protection in those towns,” Bader says.
In August 2017, an official from the coastal town of Adale in Middle Shabelle told the media that his community was harboring around 500 children. Most of them were between the age of 10 and 15. They had fled forced recruitment in the neighboring regions of Galgudud, Hiran and Middle Shabelle.
This is hardly the first time al-Shabab has been accused of recruiting children.
“We have seen in the past very young children sent to the front line, some children as young as 9 years old, very much being used as a cannon fodder …right at front lines during the fighting in Mogadishu 2010 and 2011 and more recently the large scale offensive in Puntland in 2016,” Bader said.
Al-Shabaab’s longer term plan, Bader says, is to train at least some of them as fighters.
“What appears to be part of this campaign is to get these children to go to al-Shabaab-managed, controlled madrassas, to put them through their educational system,” she said, adding, “In some cases there is a link between children growing in these schools and then being sent to military training. Research also showed children received a mixture of indoctrination and basic military training.”
HRW says that while the government had taken some steps to protect schools and students, it should work to identify recruitment drives, assist displaced children and ensure children “are not sent into harm’s way.”
The Shabaab has been fighting to overthrow successive internationally backed governments in Mogadishu since 2007 and frequently deploys car and truck bombs against military, government and civilian targets.
The Shabaab lost its foothold in the capital in 2011 but still controls vast rural areas.