Wednesday October 24, 2018
By Hassan Ghedi Santur
“Sometimes I wake up screaming”
Even by Mogadishu standards, late September was particularly violent.
Amino Hussein Hassan, a female law student, was shot dead on her
university campus. Yahye Amir, a prominent economics professor and
political analyst, escaped an assassination attempt when a bomb strapped
to his car exploded, killing his brother. And Ahmed Mukhtar Salah, from
the long-marginalised minority Bantu community, was beaten and burnt to
death by a mob after his nephew married an ethnic Somali woman.
Violence has been a way of life in Somalia since the outbreak of the
civil war in 1991, seeping deep into the nation’s marrow as clan
conflict gradually morphed into an all-out war against the al-Qaeda
affiliated Islamist group al-Shabab. “The layers of violence that people
have had to digest is one of the key problems for building a peaceful
and healthier society,” Laetitia Bader, a senior researcher at Human
Rights Watch (HRW), told me recently.
Most often, those who bear the life-long consequences are the poor,
the politically marginalised, and young people. In particular, the
thousands of children who must deal with the trauma of years on the
In May, I travelled to the capital, Mogadishu – as I have done
regularly since 2012 – to report on a crisis that, save for some
international NGOs and human rights organisations, few seem to talk
about: child soldiers.
There, I met Abdi, 16, a former child soldier. Intelligent and
eloquent, he had been a star pupil at the Koranic school in his home
town, about 55 miles from the capital. In 2009, at the age of seven, his
teacher took him and seven other boys to join al-Shabab.
For two years, Abdi lived in a camp with about three dozen other
young recruits. By the time he was eight, he had learned how to drive a
car and shoot a gun. By nine, he took part in his first raid in the
village of Darussalam Mubarak, where he witnessed an assassination: a
man killed by three bullets to the back.
As horrific as that experience was, the image that has most haunted
Abdi for years is that of the severed head of a young man his al-Shabab
camp commander brandished before the recruits as a warning: this is what
happens to informants.
“Even now after all these years, I have nightmares,” Abdi told me. “Sometimes I wake up screaming in the middle of the night.”
A disposable front line
While al-Shabab’s use of children as soldiers is nothing new, in the
last several years the number of child soldiers has increased markedly.
In al-Shabab’s heyday around 2010, when it controlled vast swaths of
the country, including a sizable chunk of the capital, persuasion and
indoctrination were enough to ensure a steady supply of young fighters.
Since 2016, increased attacks by the Somali national army and US and
African Union troops have resulted in a loss of territory for the group.
Most recently, on October 16, the US military announced that it had carried out one of the deadliest airstrikes against al-Shabab, killing 60 militants in the Mudug region.
So, desperate for more foot soldiers, al-Shabab has turned to the
abduction and forced recruitment of minors. Accurate numbers are
difficult to come by. Child Soldiers International calculates
that there has been a 269 percent increase in the number of children
within the ranks of armed groups in Somalia between 2015, when there
were 903 documented cases, to 2017, with 3,335 cases. Meanwhile,
according to a May report on
children and armed conflict presented by the UN secretary-general to the
General Assembly, 1,770 children were recruited as soldiers in 2017
alone, with al-Shabab doing the vast majority of the recruitment. The
overall number is likely even higher: UNICEF Somalia estimates that as
many as 6,000 children and youths are part of armed groups in the
In a single military operation carried out by the Somali National
Army and US troops in January on a base near the town of Baledogle, 70
miles northwest of Mogadishu, for instance, 36 child soldiers between
the ages of eight and 13 were rescued.
Often untrained and ill-equipped, these child soldiers make for a
disposable front line on the battlefield, protecting older, more
experienced fighters. This makes them more likely to suffer physical
wounds and psychological trauma.
I first met Abdi and other boys through a man I’ll call Hussein. I am
not using his real name, or identifying his location, since in addition
to running an orphanage he manages a centre that works with young
al-Shabab defectors. About 120 boys now live there, two hours’ drive
from the capital, but at one point it housed as many 520.
Discretion is essential when speaking with Hussein: if details of
Hussein’s work were made public, his facility would be vulnerable to
attack by serving al-Shabab operatives.
All former al-Shabab members are supposed to be processed by the
National Intelligence Security Agency (NISA), which hands those deemed
to be of higher risk over to the Ministry of Justice for possible
prosecution. The government has several rehabilitation centres for
lower-risk adults, but none for minors like Abdi. Instead, children are
placed in approved centres run by various NGOs, which provide education
and vocational training.
But for the children, the lure of such benefits is offset by the fear
of arrest. That’s why some former al-Shabab child soldiers choose to go
to Hussein’s unapproved centre. That’s what Abdi did.
I asked Hussein how he felt about helping those who may have committed very serious crimes.
“Our mandate is to change minds, to take all the bad things they
learned and replace it with something good,” he replied. “We believe
that all human beings can change, can improve, so we don’t give up on
them … I believe in forgiveness.”
Given the dearth of trained psychologists and mental health
facilities in the country, I wondered what help, if any, is available
for the former child soldiers. They often suffer from severe post
traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). What could be done for Abdi and the
‘Focus on the future’
Over the years, Hussein said, he had seen first-hand the emotional
and psychological trauma that violence has inflicted on the lives of
Somalis. Recalling the period he referred to as the “rabshada”
(the Somali word for “violence”, but better translated in this case as
“the troubles”) he shared one experience that has stayed with him:
Towards the end of 1992 – at the height of the civil war that had begun
in the late 1980s and which simmers on to this day – while living in
the town of Marka, Hussein saw a dead man whose hands and legs had been
tied together. The man was wrapped in banana leaves and plastic bags and
his body was set ablaze. Later, Hussein learned that the man had been
accused of stealing from a nearby farm.
There was a particular cruelty to the violence during the war,
Hussein told me. But he quickly added: “I don’t want us to dwell on the
horrors of the past … We must focus on the future and how we should help
This is a priority for Hussein, who tries to confront the trauma
suffered by the stream of young men coming to his centre without the
help of trained psychologists and psychiatrists. While he is a highly
educated man, he knows that what the boys need most is something he
cannot give them: medical diagnoses and professional treatment.
According to the Word Health Organization,
as of 2017 there were only five mental health centres in the whole of
Somalia, with just three psychiatrists working at those facilities. In
the absence of genuine mental health assistance, all Hussein can offer
the boys is conversation.
He uses a book titled “Trauma Healing and Reconciliation” to guide
discussions with the boys on understanding what trauma is and how to
deal with it. Most boys stay at his centre for six to eight months.
That’s time enough for countless discussions, both one-on-one and in
He also holds small, informal seminars on conflict management as well as a “gudi”,
a traditional Somali practice of conflict reconciliation. “Because we
have so many young men who have seen violence and trauma, they also use
violence,” he said. “But we teach them how to solve their issues
Human rights violations
In many ways, what Hussein does at his centre is what Somalia needs
to do on a national scale. Since the end of the civil war, there has not
been a sustained national conversation about trauma. Medical conditions
such as PTSD are often not even acknowledged, much less treated.
Bader, from HRW, said it’s not only extremist groups such as
al-Shabab that expose children to violence and exploitation. Most former
child soldiers live in limbo, sometimes for years. Distrusted by
society at large because of their former affiliation with al-Shabab and
other extremist groups, they live in constant fear of being recaptured
and of the threat of potential prosecution by the state. This makes them
susceptible to further exploitation, sometimes by the very government
that is supposed to help them.
A HRW report
published earlier this year and based on interviews with former NISA
detainees detailed a range of human rights violations against minors,
including lack of due process, forced confessions, secret military
trials, long periods of detention without charge, and, in a few cases,
Bader added that “while torture or physical mistreatment in
intelligence facilities is not systematic, it does happen”. She noted
that many boys she spoke with in Mogadishu “had pretty bad physical
marks from the torture they faced in NISA [facilities] in recent years”.
Although exact numbers of former al-Shabab child soldiers are
difficult to obtain, the National Programme for the Treatment and
Handling of Disengaged Combatants claims that since it was established
in 2010, the programme, through its local and international NGO
partners, has rehabilitated and relocated 2,000 former al-Shabab child
soldiers back to their communities. As for Hussein, he said his centre
had relocated almost 300 young men back to their towns and villages in
the past year.
There are, however, countless other former child soldiers who have
not gone through any formal or informal rehabilitation centres; untold
numbers who have witnessed gruesome deaths, violence, and trauma. That
many emotionally traumatised young men create a security and economic
time bomb in any country. But for a country like Somalia, one of the
poorest nations in the world struggling to recover from decades of civil
strife, the consequences when that ticking time bomb goes off may be
*Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.