BOSTON — Mogadishu has seen a glimmer of hope in recent weeks that has been absent for almost a decade.
The United Nations Special Envoy to Somaila, spearheaded by Augustine Mahiga, set foot on Somali soil for the first time in seventeen years. Al Shabaab has been swiftly expelled from Mogadishu, and African Union forces have achieved some tangible success in their efforts to eradicate Al Shabaab altogether. Recent optimism seems to effervesce from the sparkling blue sea overlooking Mogadishu.
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But according to a recent report issued by Human Rights Watch, gross violations regarding the use of child soldiers have increased exponentially. The 104-page report, entitled "No Place For Children," outlines a plethora violations of international law regarding the use of children that have occured in Somalia since 2010. Although Al Shabaab is blamed for commiting the most heinous crimes, the report states that most parties have in some way have used children in an illegal and reprehensible manner.
A plethora of atrocities
While the use of child soldiers is not new in Somalia, the scale and violent nature of these abductions has reached unprecedented levels, BBC Africa reported.
Further, the locations in which abductions take place has expanded as well; schools and playgrounds, among others, are now fair game for Al Shabaab.
"Over the course of the last two years, Al Shabaab has increasingly been forcibly abducting children — not only from their homes, but also from their schools and playing fields," said Laetitia Bader, a HRW researcher, to BBC's Network Africa program.
"The majority of children being forced to join Al Shabab are between 14 and 17 years old, but some are as young as 10," she said.
Most that are captured spend approximately three months in a 'training camp,' where they are subjected to harsh domestic work, taught how to use weapons, and witness murders and brutal assualts carried out against "enemies" of Al Shabaab.
Once training is completed, they are tasked with a multitude of abhorrent duties, according to the report.
Some are sent into battle with the sole purpose of serving as "cannon fodder." Interviewers in the report described war zones with, "bodies of children littering the battle-fronts." Others are coerced into becoming suicide bombers.
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Today, Somali youths are targeted for purposes that are not limited to fighting. Forced marriage and rape are now commonplace for captured children, according to a press release issued by Human Rights Watch.
Most of the information from the report has been compiled by over 164 interviews with young Somalis — including 21 who had escaped from Al Shabaab forces. A 15-year-old boy, whose class was attacked by Al Shabaab, told HRW: "Out of all my classmates — about 100 boys — only two of us escaped, the rest were killed."
Islamic extremists have targeted schools for a myriad of purposes other than recruitment. The reported mentions that soldiers have used students and teachers as "human shields" against artillery fire from Somalia's Transitional Federal Government and African Union (AMISOM) forces.
Teachers themselves have been recruited to spread Al Shabaab's harsh interpretation of Shariah law. English and science, among other subjects, are banned, and teachers who have resisted have been killed.
Because schools have become such visible targets, many have shut down. Children and teachers who have not fled often fear attending school, and those that attend are reportedly provided ineffective education.
Who is to blame?
The report has called on all parties, including the TFG, allied militias, and AMISOM forces, to take a more active role in ending the use of child soldiers. Human Rights Watch criticized the TFG for not only failing to hold parties responsible regarding recruitment of the youth, but also for the TFG's use of child soldiers themselves in response to Al Shabaab, according to HRW's World Report on Somalia.
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HRW has also stated that these forces need to reevaluate the way they treat captured child soldiers, in order to comply with international norms and laws. The report highlights that the emphasis on the treatment of captured child soldiers needs to be shifted from detention and punishment to rehabilitation and protection.
“Al Shabaab’s horrific abuses do not excuse Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government’s use of children as soldiers,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch.
Coursen-Neff believes that international supporters of the TFG have not applied enough pressure to coerce them to comply with international standards regarding the rights of children. “The TFG should live up to its commitments to stop recruiting and using children as soldiers, and punish those who do." she said. "Governments backing the TFG should make clear that these abuses won’t be tolerated.”
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Delegates from around the world will gather in London on Wednesday to seek a solution to the violence in Somalia. What tangible results the conference will yield is unknown, but Human Rights Watch, and the children at risk, will certainly have a stake in its results.