Halimo Hassan had been looking for her 14-year-old brother for three months. Her mother and other siblings live in a camp for displaced people (IDPs) in the Somali capital, Mogadishu.
“They [the insurgents] send young ones to the IDP camps,” she said. “These children are carrying mobile phones, they have some money to buy tea and they walk around like they own the world. This impresses a child who has no phone and no money and nothing else to occupy him.”
She said the family had been unable to send Mohamed to school, “so one day he left and we have been looking for him ever since”.
A civil society source, who requested anonymity, told IRIN that Al-Shabab had been on a recruiting campaign since just before withdrawing from Mogadishu in July.
“They do recruit people by force and we know of families whose relatives were forcibly taken, but that is half the story. They also entice young children, especially adolescent children, who don’t go to school and have nothing else to do, with money, phones and other things that may appeal to them.”
He said they preyed mostly on the children of the very poor in IDP camps, adding that the group not only gave small gifts to these children, “but also a sense of belonging to a bigger group and convinced them they are worthy of something”.
The source said that as long as there were children out of school, Al-Shabab would find a pool of ready recruits. “You want to stop the recruiting? Drain that pool and invest in children.”
Gedow Ali, 55, is looking for his boys, 16 and 11, both recruited from an IDP camp. The 16-year-old has been gone a year and the 11-year-old for three months.
“Neither was in school because I cannot afford it,” said Ali. “The eldest joined after his friends were recruited and came to the camp with phones, money and guns. A day later he was gone.”
The youngest was recruited after his Koranic teacher was forced to recruit “Mujahidin” [Muslim fighters].
Ali has tracked down his children but was told by Al-Shabab they were serving Islam and he could not take them back. “They called me and I went but I could not get them released.”
He said that on four occasions he had gone to the camps where the children were but was warned not to return.
“There are numerous families who lost children in the fighting and they cannot even mourn properly, because they don’t where their children have been buried,” Ali said. “Every day I pray that my two boys will leave, but I know it is not easy for them.”
A local journalist in Mogadishu told IRIN that IDP camps dotted around the city were a breeding ground for young recruits.
“You have thousands of very young people who have nothing to do, no school, just sitting in camps. It won’t take much to convince them that there is a better life out there.”
There are, however, some 17-18-year-olds who join the group because they believe they are fighting for their country and religion.
“This group [17-18] and those in their early 20s do join voluntarily and buy into the ideology of being an Islamic warrior,” said the civil society source.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said it had been monitoring violations against children’s rights since 2005 and that the majority of children associated with armed forces or armed groups were aged 14-18 years, “…though there are reports that children as young as nine are being recruited and used in the conflict”.
Iman Morooka, communication officer for the UNICEF Somalia Support Centre, said the number of children being used in the conflict was not known, “but reports indicate that thousands of children and young people are being trained in basic arms techniques as well as more sophisticated skills.
“Any use of children within armed conflict is unacceptable. Regardless of the means by which children join armed forces or armed groups, their association deprives them of their rights and their childhood. Moreover, the physical and psychological impact on children and their communities is devastating— Irinnews.org