Page last updated at 09:25 GMT, Wednesday, 29 July 2009 10:25 UK

Alarm over Somalia's child soldiers

For years, warlords have conscripted children to fight in bitter conflicts over money, power and land. The BBC Somali service's Mohamed Mohamed reveals widespread alarm that the practice is now becoming entrenched in Somalia.

Child soldier in Mogadishu, May 2009
Children man checkpoints and administer lashings in Mogadishu

Children as young as eight years old are going missing.

Some are drugged, others brainwashed and some paid $50 (£30) for every month they fight.

Most people are frightened to speak openly, but those who can afford it are sending their children out of the country to safety.

An elderly man who did not want to be named publicly told how his 15-year-old son had vanished.

He said he had looked everywhere for his boy, and even asked the militant Islamist group al-Shabab whether they had seen him.

They said they had not, but he later found out that al-Shabab had convinced the boy to join their jihad so "he would go to heaven if he died".

Children as shields

"After a long search I found out that my son is being held in a training camp on the outskirts of Baidoa," he said.

"They are using our children as a shield. But the children of people who claim to be leaders are not in the camps. They are not fighting.

"Al-Shabab only use children from the poor as fighters."

The boy stops public transport and checks if there are men and women passengers sharing the seats. If he finds them, he tells them to get off the bus and flogs them
Mogadishu resident

A Mogadishu resident says he has seen 10-year-old children on street corners in Mogadishu armed with AK47s.

"A child of about 12 years old, armed with a gun and a whip works at a crossroads in Mogadishu's Bakara market," he says.

"The boy stops public transport and checks if there are men and women passengers sharing the seats.

"If he finds them, he tells them to get off the bus and flogs them in public while other members of al-Shabab sit under roadside trees nearby."

Trained by foreigners

Hundreds of Somali youngsters are recruited and trained in camps in southern Somalia by al-Shabab, according to a senior police officer.

map showing areas under Islamist control

"The people involved in training children are foreigners who speak English or Arabic and they use translators to help them," says Colonel Abdullahi Hassan Barise.

"They are from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chechnya and other countries."

He said a few months ago, the police caught a small bus carrying teenagers at a police checkpoint outside Mogadishu.

The children were from villages and towns in Lower Juba and they had been transported by al-Shabab.

In their inquiries, he said they had found that some of the children had been threatened while others were brainwashed into believing that they would go to paradise if they took part in what was described as the defence of Somalia and Islam.

"Some of the children said that a Pakistani trainer used to spike their drinks with something," he said.

He also said some of the street children in Mogadishu are recruited as they are the most vulnerable, because there is no family to look after them.

American jihadists

Even Somalis who live overseas are not safe from the child recruitment effort of the Islamists.

In the US state of Minnesota, some young men from the Somali community have been recruited to fight with al-Shabab, and have been killed.

Somali child soldier in training
Children are brainwashed, threatened, drugged or paid to fight

In October last year, at least one of them, Shirwa Mohamed, carried out a suicide attack against security services in Bosasso in north-eastern Somalia.

Omar Jamal, a community leader in Minnesota, blames local jihadists' influence on young people.

"They were targeting young, vulnerable boys at colleges and universities to indoctrinate them and tell them to join and fight the jihad," he says.

"Some of them were provided with cash and Somali passports and they were persuaded to join this global jihadist ideology and they fall for it.

"We want this to come to an end and we want the US government to investigate."

Meanwhile, the FBI is already looking into how and why these Somali youngsters choose to leave a comfortable life in the US for the dangerous conditions in Somalia.

A worker for a children's rights group in Somalia says that, while using children as soldiers is not new, the scale, number and age of those involved is worrying.

Parents try to stop their children from being recruited - but the lack of schools or other activities as well as, in some cases, peer pressure makes it difficult.

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