(London) – Somalia’s warring parties have all failed to protect Somali children from the fighting or serving in their forces, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab has increasingly targeted children for recruitment, forced marriage, and rape, and attacked teachers and schools, Human Rights Watch said.
“For children in Somalia, nowhere is safe,” said Zama Coursen-Neff , deputy children’s rights director at Human Rights Watch. “Al-Shabaab rebels have abducted children from their homes and schools to fight, for rape, and for forced marriage.”
The 104-page report,“No Place for Children: Child Recruitment, Forced Marriage, and Attacks on Schools in Somalia ,” details unlawful recruitment and other laws-of-war violations against children by all parties to the conflict in Somalia  since 2010. The report is based on over 164 interviews with Somali children, including 21 who had escaped from al-Shabaab forces, as well as parents and teachers who had fled to Kenya.
Human Rights Watch called on all parties to the conflict, involving Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and African Union forces (AMISOM) against al-Shabaab, to release any child soldiers  in their ranks, protect children formerly associated with fighting forces, and protect schools, teachers, and students from attack.
Since Somalia’s conflict intensified in 2010 and 2011, al-Shabaab has increasingly forced children, some as young as 10, to join its dwindling ranks. After several weeks of harsh training, al-Shabaab’s child recruits are then sent to the front lines, where some serve as “cannon fodder” to protect adult fighters, Human Rights Watch found. Others have been coerced into becoming suicide bombers.A 15-year-old boy told Human Rights Watch that in 2010, “Out of all my classmates – about 100 boys – only two of us escaped, the rest were killed. The children were cleaned off. The children all died and the bigger soldiers ran away.”
Al-Shabaab has also abducted girls for domestic and front-line service, as well as to be wives to al-Shabaab fighters. Families who try to prevent their children’s recruitment or abduction by al-Shabaab, or children who attempt to escape, face severe consequences and even death.
The TFG military and militias aligned with it are deploying children in their forces despite commitments from Somali officials since late 2010 to end the recruitment and use of children, Human Rights Watch said. To date, the TFG has failed to hold anyone to account for this abuse. It has also detained children perceived to be supporters of al-Shabaab instead of providing them with rehabilitation and protection in accordance with international standards.
“Al-Shabaab’s horrific abuses do not excuse Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government’s use of children as soldiers,” Coursen-Neff said. “The TFG should live up to its commitments to stop recruiting and using children as soldiers, and punish those who do. Governments backing the TFG should make clear that these abuses won’t be tolerated.”
Al-Shabaab’s violations of the laws of war include attacks on schools, teachers, and students, Human Rights Watch said. The armed grouphas deployed its fighters and heavy weapons in schools, often packed with students, and used children as “human shields.” Terrified students described to Human Rights Watch being locked in schools, awaiting often indiscriminate return artillery fire from TFG and African Union forces.
In schools in areas under their control, al-Shabaab officials have recruited children and teachers and imposed their harsh interpretation of Islam on the school curriculum. Students and teachers told Human Rights Watch that al-Shabaab banned English, science, and other subjects, and even killed teachers who resisted. As a result, many schools have shut down, after teachers fled and many children dropped out. Schools that have remained open provide little or no substantive education.
Human Rights Watch also called on the TFG, its allied militias, and the African Union troops to identify schools in areas of their military operations, including outside of Mogadishu, to minimize the risk to them.
International supporters of the TFG, including the United Nations, European Union, African Union, and the United States, have not paid sufficient attention to human rights violations by the government, including recruitment and use of children as soldiers, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch urged intergovernmental institutions and governments, including states in the region, to place children’s protection and other human rights concerns high on the agenda when they meet in London to discuss the Somalia crisis on February 23, 2012. They should increase support for human rights monitoring and reporting and use any leverage they have on warring parties to protect children and their secure access to education.
“If world leaders meeting in London want to address Somalia’s future, it’s crucial for them to protect this shattered generation of children from further horror and invest in their education and security,” Coursen-Neff said.
Selected accounts from the report:
My 13-year-old friend was in my class. When al-Shabaab tried to take him to the camp, he said he was the only son of his mother. They said he would be killed before he could even explain. They hit him with a gun butt and forced him out of the class. The teacher intervened and al-Shabaab said he was the one telling the kids not to come. They then shot him in front of our class.
– 15-year-old boy describing a 2010 killing in El Ashabiya.
Then they took us to fight. It was between al-Shabaab and the TFG. All the young children were taken to the first row of the fighting. I was there. Several of the young children there were killed, including several of my classmates. Out of all my classmates –about 100 boys – only two of us escaped, the rest were killed. The children were cleaned off. The children all died and the bigger soldiers ran away.
– 15-year-old boy recruited by al-Shabaab from his school in Mogadishu in mid-2010.
In mid-2010 al-Shabaab took me from my house. They were controlling the entire neighborhood and locked me in a house. They told me, “We will marry you to our leader.” I was in that house for a month. I was crying day and night. Then I said they should go and ask my father. They released me. I told my mother I didn’t want it. After that I went to live with my grandmother in a different neighborhood controlled by the TFG, Hamer Wayne. After that when they came to our house, they took my two brothers.
– 16-year-old girl from Bondhere, Mogadishu.
I was always worried when they were at school. You always worried when the day ended to see if your boy was recruited or your girl was kidnapped. Every day you get your child back at the end you are thankful. Every day there were incidents reported from the school.
– Mother whose 17-year-old daughter was taken by al-Shabaab during a school tea break in Bakara, Mogadishu.
One day al-Shabaab entered the school and went up to the first floor. They were shooting big guns from the school…. 15 to 20 al-Shabaab entered the first floor and fired. They closed the door and we stayed in the class. We were locked in from 10 or 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. – there was continuous fighting. We heard return fire but it did not hit the school, it hit all around us.
– 18-year-old student from Hawlwadag, Mogadishu describing an incident from October 2010.