The Somalia-based Islamist militant group al-Shabaab has increasingly targeted children for guerilla recruitment, forced marriage and rape, and attacked teachers and parents who tried to protect them, Human Rights Watch said in its latest report.
Young people under18 have suffered disproportionately from the ongoing conflict in Somalia, the advocacy group reported in "No Place for Children: Child Recruitment, Forced Marriage, and Attacks on Schools in Somalia," published last week.
The country has been torn by violence for years. Fighting between the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and TFG-aligned militias on one hand and al-Shabaab, the Islamist armed group that now controls much of the country, on the other, intensified in the capital, Mogadishu, and other parts of south-central Somalia in mid-2010 and early 2011, according to the report.
Instances of violent child abduction are now escalating, Human Rights Watch claims, as children are even being taken from schools and homes. Adults who interfere reportedly face violence. While the presence of children in fighting forces in the 21-year Somali conflict is not a new phenomenon, there has been an unprecedented upsurge of al-Shabaab forced recruitment of children since mid-2010. Attacks on students, teachers, and schools have also been prevalent in the last two years.
"For children in Somalia, nowhere is safe," Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy children's rights director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "Al-Shabaab rebels have abducted children from their homes and schools to fight, for rape, and for forced marriage."
Children are often the main victims of the indiscriminate artillery and small arms fire that has long characterized the fighting in Mogadishu. They are also the most affected by the ongoing humanitarian crisis, including a recently U.N.-declared famine in the south-central region of Somalia.
Al-Shabaab has increasingly forced children, some as young as 10, to join its ranks. Some are then used as "cannon fodder" to protect adult fighters, Human Rights Watch found. Others have been coerced into becoming suicide bombers. A 15-year-old boy told Human Rights Watch that in 2010: "Out of all my classmates – about 100 boys – only two of us escaped, the rest were killed. The children were cleaned off. The children all died and the bigger soldiers ran away."
Even life in al-Shabaab training camps is harsh for children, as boys undergo grueling physical combat training, weapons training, and religious and political teaching during which some described being forced to watch videos of suicide bombings. Boys also described witnessing brutal physical punishments and executions of those accused of spying for the TFG, and those attempting to escape or merely failing to obey orders, the advocacy group reported.
However, the Islamic terror group is not the only body recruiting children. TGF does that as well, the report claims.
"Al-Shabaab's horrific abuses do not excuse Somalia's Transitional Federal Government's use of children as soldiers," Coursen-Neff said. "The TFG should live up to its commitments to stop recruiting and using children as soldiers, and punish those who do. Governments backing the TFG should make clear that these abuses won't be tolerated."
Al-Shabaab has also abducted girls for domestic and front-line service, as well as to be wives to al-Shabaab fighters, the report reads.
Families who try to prevent their children's recruitment or abduction by al-Shabaab, or children who attempt to escape, face severe consequences and even death.
Al-Shabaab is a militant Islamist group that began as part of the armed wing of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) when the courts rose to power in Mogadishu in 2006. Al-Shabaab is not a monolithic entity but rather an alliance of factions that initially rallied under its banner with the aim of forcing the Ethiopian troops to leave Somalia.
Al-Shabaab currently controls more territory in southern Somalia than any other faction and became the largest armed insurgent group in Dec. 2010 following its merger with Hizbul Islam, another Islamist armed group.
Meanwhile, as CP reported last week, new research from World Vision, a Christian relief agency, also showed that children in Somalia are suffering high levels of trauma as a result of the fighting, displacement and an ongoing food crisis.