Sunday, June 24, 2007
Mogadishu symbolizes Somalia’s bloody civil war and every corner of the city is littered with testaments of the savageness of the war. (kilometre 4) KM4 Arch stands despondently at the eastern side of KM4 roundabout. Before the civil war broke out, KM4 area used to offer a scenic view and the Arch had an imposing structure. Unfortunately, years of armed conflicts make such view now rather remote. Like most buildings in Mogadishu, strayed bullets and years of neglect have eroded the Arch’s beauty. KM4 area is bursting with poverty-stricken adults peppered with crippled children begging for some change.
Those who regularly walk under the Arch often hear a tear-jerking whistle before they see the whistler. The whistler is Ali, a 15-year old boy, who is confined to a chair. Ali suffers untold neglect that allows dirt to cake on his small body. Begging is the only source of income Ali has, whistling is the only entertainment that he can manage and time abundance is the only thing he actually possesses. Ali used to earn his income by freelancing with the militia before a bomb blew up his left hand and leg. Ali now wonders what the future holds for him. From his uninviting chair, he occasionally palpates his amputated leg, surveys passers-by and mumbles a life-sized question: “who robbed my childhood?”
Ali does not consider himself a former robber but a victim of robbery and the culprits are Somalia’s armed groups. Somalia’s civil war disrupted all sides of the nation and forced many people to flee. Ali was separated from his family at the end of 1990s and survival became his prime objective. Joining one of the Somalia militias was the only option available to him and he used to earn his bread through the barrel of his gun. When Ali looks at his condition of helpless inactivity, he wonders why he was given a deadly toy, AK47, at the age of 10.
How many children, like Ali, have joined armed groups? There is lack of availability of definite statistics about child soldiers. However, it is believed the warring groups in Somalia have recruited a significant number of children to fulfil their operations. Child Soldiers Global Report 2004 noted: “There was widespread use of children as soldiers by all parties involved in continuing armed conflict. Some 200,000 children were estimated to have carried a gun or been involved with militias over a 14-year period.” Various forces in Somalia still use child soldiers. William Spindler, spokesman for the UNHCR, recently said: “children as young as 12 are being recruited to fight in conflicts which are currently plaguing Somalia.”
In a war torn society, children are directly exposed to the harmful effects of war. Poverty plays a crucial role by removing any safe net and limiting children choices to ‘fight or die’ situation. Armed groups usually exploit the innocence of children since they are defenceless and a ready source of recruitment. Group leaders prefer to use child soldiers because they do not eat as much as adults. Child soldiers are easier to control and less demanding. More importantly, they are fearless and loyal.
Adult commanders use stick and carrot approach to recruit children. Children are forced to fight or led to believe that they are fighting for a cause or revenge. One of the coercive methods used by these merciless adults is to fill children bodies with drugs or khat. Fresh khat leaves are glossy brown and contain a psychoactive ingredient chemically similar to amphetamine. The drug has two active ingredients: cathinone and cathine. Both are found in the shrub as it grows, but cathinone is converted to cathine as the leaves dry and mature. Child soldiers who turn out to be fighting machines are paraded as heroes in order to seduce others.
If a threatened penalty fails to work, a positive motivation is used. Adult leaders use inducement baits such as food, clothing, shelter and empty promises to lure children to join their groups.
These young boys neither shape their own future nor fight their own fights, but they fight for whoever controls them in order to stay alive. And they are paying the price dearly.
Another worrying trend is child soldiers who were recruited in the early 1990s are now mature adults and they are recruiting new child soldiers. The former child soldiers and the new child soldiers are becoming like a 400-meter relay team, the former child soldiers are passing the gun and the killing culture with testament that advocates violence to the new child soldiers. The new child soldiers may become another lost generation and pass their experience to the subsequent generation. This will create generations of child soldiers if it is not addressed in earnest.
Warring parties in Somalia have victimised many children. It is too late to protect Ali and others like him but it is not too late to save those who have yet to become child soldiers.
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