A new report says Somalia's al-Shabab militants are forcing rural communities to hand over children as young as 8 years old for indoctrination and military training.
Human Rights Watch says al-Shabab conscripts the children by subjecting elders and religious school teachers to beatings, abductions and intimidation tactics. The group's campaign has focused on the Bay region in southwestern Somalia, where communities were already ravaged by droughts and years of conflict, according to the report from the international rights group.
The campaign was first reported by VOA's Somali service in September.
"These are communities which have already been hit by drought, very poor, struggling to survive," said Laetitia Bader, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch who interviewed families affected by the campaign, which began in late September 2017.
Bader says in some incidents, al-Shabab militants have taken children directly from school classrooms. In others, the group took local elders hostage and refused to release them until a village agreed to hand over a certain number of kids.
In one incident, al-Shabab fighters beat a teacher after he refused to hand over his students. One teacher said that when he was hit by the militants, students started crying and tried to run out of the classroom but the militants were on hand to punish them. "They caned a 7-year-old boy who tried to escape," the teacher told HRW.
HRW says hundreds of children have been affected. In one village alone, al-Shabab abducted at least 50 boys and girls from two schools near Burhakaba town and took them to Bulo Fulay where the militant group runs schools and a major training facility.
Back in September, Bay region Governor Ali Wardhere Doyow said clans and elders should resist al-Shabab. "Reject, don't let them take away your children. Fight it off," he said. But al-Shabab dominates the Bay region, leaving government officials with little means to stop the conscription.
The campaign has prompted hundreds of children to flee areas controlled by Al-Shabab. "A community's only option to protect their children from recruitment was to send them into government controlled towns, often on their own, just to see if they can get a bit more protection in those towns," Bader says.
This is hardly the first time al-Shabab has been accused of recruiting children. "We have seen in the past very young children sent to the front line, some children as young as 9 years old, very much being used as a cannon fodder ...right at front lines during the fighting in Mogadishu 2010 and 2011 and more recently the large scale offensive in Puntland in 2016," Bader said.
Al-Shabab's longer term plan, Bader says, is to train at least some of them as fighters.
"What appears to be part of this campaign is to get these children to go to al-Shabab-managed, controlled madrassas, to put them through their educational system," she said, adding, "In some cases there is a link children growing in these schools and then being sent to military training. Research also showed children received a mixture of indoctrination and basic military training."