MOGADISHU, Somalia — Sharif says he was 10 when his religious teacher led his class into a poor neighborhood of Somalia's capital to pray for a sick relative. Suddenly Islamist fighters jumped from the shadows and ordered the children onto buses, the beginning of a terrifying two years as a child soldier.
The class was taken to a training base in the south of the anarchic country, Sharif says, where Somali and foreign instructors showed them how to use weapons and set ambushes. The boy says before battle he was sometimes given drugs that made him feel like he could "pick up a tank and throw it aside like a telephone."
The recruitment of child fighters in Somalia is on the rise, both by the government and particularly by the country's most powerful Islamist militia, al-Shabab, whose name means "the youth." Al-Shabab's recruitment of children may partly stem from a lack of willing adults, who have been alienated by Islamist attacks on traditional Sufi saints and bans on everything from chewing qat, a mildly narcotic leaf, to school bells and music.
"Better informed, smarter, older people are saying they don't want to join" al-Shabab, said E.J. Hogendoorn, a Nairobi-based analyst at the International Crisis Group. "The sad reality with modern infantry weapons is that all you really need is a kid to operate them."
UNICEF, the section of the U.N. dealing with children's rights, said children as young as 9 are being targeted and often taken through force or deception, said Denise Shepherd-Johnson, a Nairobi-based spokeswoman, citing information received from monitors in Somalia.
"Children are being systematically recruited and used in ever larger numbers for military and related purposes by all of the major combatant groups," she said. "The number of bases and camps used to train these children is commensurately widespread and appears to be growing." READ THE FULL STORY...
Associated Press Writers Mohamed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu, Somalia and Malkhadir M. Muhumed in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.