Fearing Al Shabab, Somali parents pull children out of schools

June 2013 - Somali guard in Mogadishu souq. (Photo by: Ernest Sipes|ARA Network Inc.)NAIROBI – Pain, anguish and desperation still lace Maalim Mohamud voice as he talks about his 13-year old son Ismael.
Ismael Haji disappeared mysteriously on his way home from school in the town of Baidoa in southern Somalia two years ago.

“I still feel the pain as a parent. I can’t believe that I will never see him again,” said Mohamud, 45, a father of five who now lives in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. “He was the hope of this family and we loved him. We miss him so much.”

Mohamud says he suspects that al-Shabaab militants kidnapped Ismael with three other students from Baidoa primary school. The Al Qaeda-linked terror group regularly enters villages and demands that families give up their children. If parents resist, the militants often capture youngsters and force them to join their ranks.

“We suspect that they were kidnapped by al-Shabaab soldiers because they have been ordering us to hand over our children as young as seven years to help them fight,” he said.

Mohamud’s predicament is only one of many cases of child kidnappings that are becoming a major concern in the country which has experienced three decades of civil war.

Children between the ages of nine and 15 are increasingly facing horrific abuse in war-torn Somalia as al-Shabaab forcibly recruits young fighters to help fight against Somali and international troops, according to Human Rights Watch. The jihadists subject the children to "indoctrination and military training," the group says.

In January, Somali soldiers with the support from the American troops stationed in Somalia conducted a raid on an al-Shabaab camp and freed at least 32 child soldiers. The team of U.S. Special Forces offered both tactical and technical assistance to the Somali troops in the raid in the Middle Shabelle region in southern Somalia.

In February, Somali Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government told Reuters that the abductions illustrate how Somali troops and their allies are making headway against the terrorists. “It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” said Osman. “It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror."

Still, the prospect of a press gang abducting their children has led parents of hundreds of children to keep them out of schools where they might be vulnerable. Other kids have left school as their families have left villages in remote areas and moved to major cities like Kismayu and Mogadishu to escape al-Shabaab.

Bashir Abdalla, 16, who now works as a waiter in Mogadishu, was forced to leave his home in town of Berdale in southern Somalia when the militants threatened to kill everyone in his family if he wasn't willing to train and defend his country as a jihadist.

Abdalla was in 10th grade at the time. He said friends who had escaped from an al-Shabaab military training camp told him that children like him join fighting units in their mid-teens after three months of training.

“I was very scared for my life and I had to run to Mogadishu and look for a job,” said Abdalla who is now living with his aunt. “I had to drop out of school because I knew they will kill me and my family. I was very worried.”

Human Rights watch said more children are likely to drop out of school and flee their rural homes if nothing is done to save children from this East African nation.

“Al-Shabaab’s ruthless recruitment campaign is taking rural children from their parents so they can serve this militant armed group,” said Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To escape that cruel fate, many children have fled school or their homes.”

Elders in the south, or community leaders with vast decision-making powers, are deeply worried over the situation, saying the future of their communities are in jeopardy.

“We’ll have no male children in the region if the trend continues,” warned Ahmed Aden, 65, an elder from Bay who now lives in Mogadishu. “We are losing our sons every day because they are being killed by the hundreds. Our children are not going to school and their future is uncertain.”

Al-Shabaab has been battling the UN-backed government in Somalia for years. The group has carried out a string of attacks in neighboring Kenya, including the Garissa University attack that left 148 students dead in April 2015. The group has been pushed out of most of the large cities it once controlled, like the port city of Kismayo, but it remains a potent threat.

In early March, a bomb exploded near a security checkpoint outside parliament in Mogadishu, killing two soldiers. In October last year, more than 300 people were killed in Mogadishu after twin car explosions, making it the deadliest attack in the country's recent history. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for both attacks.

But as African Union Mission to Somalia is expected to withdraw its 22,000 troops by 2020, residents in this east African country are worried about the future.

“Foreign soldiers should not leave Somalia. They should in fact increase the number so that they can defeat al-Shabaab," said Mohamud. "I cannot wish anyone to go through the anguish I have been through.”

A version of this story can be found in Public Radio International.
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