A week has passed now since Puntland security forces have been battling over a hundred of al-Shabaab insurgents in the Northern coastal villages of the autonomous region after arriving by boats from Central Somalia.
In one of the horrifying moments, Puntland officials on Monday displayed to the media dozens of brainwashed youths as young as 12-years who were captured alive during the battle. They were forced to join the terror group as part of their new plans to launch a new insurgency in the stable region.
Children are very vulnerable in conflict-ridden areas such as Somalia and need to be protected. The use of children as soldiers causes significant psychological and physical development challenges.
The recruitment and use of children by armed groups is one of “six grave violations” against children identified by the United Nations Security Council. Yet the practice is pervasive, despite various legal instruments that aim to protect the rights of children in conflict.
From Classroom to Battlefield
Like most extremist terror groups, al-Shabaab either abducts its child recruits from their homes and schools or entices them by offers of free food and gifts. In some cases, however, the extremists take advantage of a child’s grinding poverty by paying for his services.
One 15-year-old boy, Jama, said that he was convinced to join the group after being promised that he will receive free education.
‘’I wanted to get education and they promised me that they will provide it to me. I never knew that I will end up in this kind of situation. My parents never knew about that at all.’’
Aden Isack, 16, was a resident of Hudur district, Northwestern region of Bakool. According to him, he was abducted by al-Shabaab recruiters as he was en route to visit his mother in Mogadishu.
‘’They arrested me and later on told me that I was part of their army. I was trained for two months how to fight.’’
Another boy, Maslah, 16, said:’’They told me that I will defend the religion. I had no idea about al-Shabaab and my parents are not aware of where I am currently.’’
All of them had the same plea – to be pardoned and reunite with their families who are not aware of their fate.
Most of their commanders were killed during the week-long battle after refusing to surrender to the troops.
For those who chafe at the idea of self-slaughter, the terrorists rely on the threat and use of violence to ensure compliance. Not surprisingly, the need to resort to violence to guarantee obedience comes from the fact that many child recruits don’t come to the jihad willingly, but are the victims of kidnapping by the terrorists.
A tool to continue terror campaign
It should be noted that the use of child combatants is a worldwide plague practiced by a wide array of government, militant, insurgent and terrorist forces. In fact, it is estimated that most of the 300,000 boys and girls involved in the over 30 ongoing conflicts worldwide are less than 15 years of age.
Yet, not surprisingly, al-Shabaab, have taken their use of child combatants to a completely new and ruthless level, disregard that finds its expression in forced indoctrination.
Commanders like children because it is easier to manipulate their psychological capacity to participate in mass atrocities.
Several current conflicts display the correlation between child soldiers and the potential for mass atrocities.
Yet, as horrific as life is for a child ensconced inside the ranks of an Islamist terror outfit, children outside their deadly confines can still find themselves unsuspectingly used for lethal operations.
The use of child soldiers is a scourge on society. In addition to the simple horror of forcing children, who should be playing and learning, to experience hell on earth, it prevents a generation from learning and working to end conflicts, perpetuating violence and discord.
However, it is an extremely difficult problem to deal with. Even as governments acknowledge its horror and work to end the practice, non-governmental entities, that often have no problem violating human rights norms, continue to kidnap, recruit and enlist children
Unfortunately for these children, the gruesome reality of their violent deaths will most definitely trump the empty promise of the jihadist paradise painted by their heinous guardians.