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Mogadishu, Somalia. Awil Salah Osman prowls the streets of this shattered city, looking like so many other boys, clothes torn, limbs thin and eyes eager for attention and affection. But Awil is different in two notable ways: he is shouldering a fully automatic, fully loaded Kalashnikov assault rifle; and he is working for a military that is substantially armed and financed by the United States.

“You!” he shouts at a driver trying to sneak past his checkpoint, his cherubic face turning violently angry.

“You know what I’m doing here!” He shakes his gun menacingly. “Stop your car!” The driver halts immediately. In Somalia, lives are lost quickly, and few want to take their chances with a moody 12-year-old.

It is well known that Somalia’s radical Islamist insurgents are plucking children off soccer fields and turning them into fighters. But Awil is not a rebel. He is working for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, a critical piece of the American counter-terrorism strategy in the Horn of Africa.

According to Somali human rights groups and United Nations officials, the Somali Transitional Federal Government, which relies on Western aid to survive, is fielding hundreds of children on front lines, some as young as nine.

Child soldiers are deployed across the globe, but UN sources maintain that the Somali government is among the “most persistent violators” of children’s rights, sending them into war and putting the government on a list with notorious rebel groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army.


Somali government officials concede that they have not done the proper vetting. Officials also revealed that the United States government was helping pay their soldiers, an arrangement American officials confirmed, raising the possibility that the wages for some of these child combatants may have come from American taxpayers.

United Nations officials say they have offered the Somali government specific plans to demobilize the children, but Somalia’s leaders, struggling for years to withstand the insurgents’ advances, have been paralyzed by bitter infighting and so far have been unresponsive.

Several American officials have also expressed concern about the use of child soldiers and say that they have been urging their Somali counterparts to be more careful. But when asked how the American government could guarantee that American money was not being used to arm children, one of the officials said, “I don’t have a good answer for that.”

According to Unicef, only two countries have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the use of soldiers younger than 15: the United States and Somalia. The United States did ratify a later agreement which is an optional protocol to the convention, aimed at preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

Many human rights groups find this unacceptable, and President Obama himself, when this issue was raised during his campaign, did not disagree. “It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land,” he said.

All across this lawless land, smooth, hairless faces peek out from behind enormous guns. In blown-out buildings, children handle bullets twice the size of their fingers. In neighborhoods by the sea, they run checkpoints and face down four-by-four trucks, though they can barely see over the hood.

Awil struggles to carry his weapon; it weighs about 10 pounds. The strap digs into his bony shoulders, and he is constantly shifting it from one side to the other with a grimace. Sometimes he gets a helping hand from his comrade Ahmed Hassan, who is 15. Ahmed said he was sent to Uganda more than two years ago for army training, when he was 12, though his claim could not be independently verified. (American military advisers have been helping oversee the training of Somali government soldiers in Uganda.) “One of the things I learned,” Ahmed explained eagerly, “is how to kill with a knife.”

Children do not have many options in Somalia. After the government collapsed in 1991, an entire generation was let loose on the streets. Most children have never sat in a classroom or played in a park. Their bones have been stunted by conflict-induced famine, their psyches damaged by all the killings they have witnessed. “What do I enjoy?” Awil asked. “I enjoy the gun.”

Like many other children here, the war has left him hard beyond his years. He loves cigarettes and is addicted to qat, a bitter leaf that, for the few hours he chews it each day, makes grim reality fade away.

He was abandoned by his parents who fled to Yemen, he said, and was about seven when he joined a militia. He now lives with other government soldiers in a dive littered with cigarette packs and smelly clothes. Awil does not know exactly how old he is. His commander says he is around 12, but birth certificates are rare.

Awil gobbles down greasy rice with unwashed hands because he does not know where his next meal is coming from. He is paid about $1.50 a day, but only every now and then, like most soldiers. His bed is a fly-covered mattress that he shares with two other child soldiers, Ali Deeq, 10, and Abdulaziz, 13.
“He should be in school,” said Awil’s commander, Abdisalam Abdillahi, “but there is no school.”

According to Ali Sheikh Yassin, vice-chairman of Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Mogadishu, children make up some 20 percent of government troops (thought to number 5,000 to 10,000) and up to 80 percent of rebel forces. The leading insurgent group, which has drawn increasingly close to Al Qaeda, is named Shabab, meaning “youth” in Arabic. “These kids can be so easily brainwashed,” Mr. Ali said. “They don’t even have to be paid.” One of the myriad dangers Awil faces is constant gunfire between his squad and another group of government soldiers from a different clan. The Somali government is racked by divisions from the prime minister’s office down to the street.

Awil is eager for action. His commanders say he has already proven himself fighting against the Shabab, who used to bully him in the market. “That made me want to join the T.F.G.,” he said. “With them, I feel like I am amongst my brothers.”

Jeffrey Gettleman

Ed Ou

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