Clutching his AK-47 assault rifle, Abdul sits on the green barriers erected outside an army base as he stares at soldiers and civilians milling around before his gaze shifts to children playing in the sand.
He wears a serious expression, but is no ordinary fighter.
Aged only 14, he is one of thousands of children doing military work in the Somali conflict that for nearly three decades is as complex as it is deadly.
“I am a fighter in my clan militia… I started when I was eight years old,” he says.
Somali army officials and clan elders are quick to point out that the underage fighters in their ranks are in reality vigilantes rather than child soldiers.
But according to the UN Security Council Resolution 1261 unanimously adopted in 1999, a child soldier is anyone below 18 years of age associated with an armed group.
The UN adds that children recruited or used by such groups during conflict in any capacity — as fighters, cooks, porters, spies and for sexual purposes — are child soldiers, which is one of the six grave violations identified and prohibited by the United Nations Security Council.
At the start of 2017, the UN released verified numbers of child soldiers in the Somali conflict, which stood at 6,163 recruited between 2010 and 2016.
The UN noted that over 70 per cent of child soldiers in Somalia populate Al Shabaab ranks where it is believed that more than 50 per cent of the insurgents’ fighters are aged below 18.
But it also said it had found 920 cases of children used by the Somali National Army and militia that are allied to the government, all of whom work closely with the UN-mandated African Union peacekeeping force.
Like every other Somali born after the fall of former dictator Siad Barre in 1991 — and raised through the country’s strong clan system that allows creation and recruitment of militia, the teenager typifies the complexity of the inter- and intra-clan conflict that has confounded UN-mandated missions in Somalia.
At the age of eight, the elders of Abdul’s Dir clan drafted him into its militia. [Apparently, for clans that are allied to the Somali National Army (SNA), recruitment of underage fighters is quite normal and endorsed by the Federal Government of Somalia].
“Some of these boys are children of this struggle and so they become part of it,” says Col Bonny Bamwiseki, commander of Battle Group XXII of the Uganda contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), headquartered at Ceeljaale near Marka town.
This way, Abdul was given licence and means to execute a personal agenda.
“I became a militiaman because Al Shabaab killed my father,” he told The EastAfrican in a recent interview.
His father, Ahmed was shot dead before his own family at a place called Kilometer 50, in Lower Shabelle Region. Al Shabaab suspected the senior, a civilian and farmer, to be an Amisom collaborator.
This incident saw his family displaced from their home town to Ceeljaale, a quiet village on the shores of the Indian Ocean, 71km southwest of Mogadishu.
“I want to be a special soldier of the SNA one day,” the youngster says through a translator.
He has not had any education.
His main task daily — even as he hopes to join the SNA — is to patrol the roads in and around Ceeljaale, together with Amisom and the SNA.
And when the enemy attacks, the youngster joins in combat to defend Amisom and SNA positions, and to protect the civilians.
But fighting alongside the SNA and Amisom as he understudies his heroes is to patrol the roads in an area that is littered with improvised explosive devices planted by Al Shabaab to blow up convoys and infantry vehicles, this raises questions of the force’s adherence to the UN mandate.
Indeed, the militia are an easy target for Al Shabaab as they patrol the deadly roads and windy ocean shore without body armour and other protective clothing or combat gear in the event of an ambush or heavy rain.
On the day we met Abdul, he was wearing black sandals, blue jeans, a shirt that is worse for wear and a tee shirt — all donated by the civilians he protects.
Col Bamwiseki explains that at times the militia is quicker to counter the enemy and help to quell Al Shabaab attacks before Amisom rolls into action. But he stresses that the peacekeeping force does not recruit the vigilantes.
“The militia are not our responsibility,” he says “They belong to the clans which control them. The [Somali] government trains them, equips them and facilitates them.”
“Our work as Amisom is to support government but not to interfere with their local [clan] arrangements. That’s our mandate. We come in only when they [militia] disturb the civilian population,” he adds.
However, the commander, whose battle group comprises the 1st and 19th Battalions with forward operation bases at Shalamboot and Buufow, admits that the government allied militia provides a useful first line of engagement.
“Recently, Al Shabaab came in and were headed towards the Indian Ocean. Before Amisom could take action, the militia engaged them for two hours and killed six of them. Amisom arrived later to support them,” he says, referring to an attempt on the army base on April 28.
Ceeljaale elder and chief Yuusuf Osman Ali admits that his village militia who number about 150, includes underage children, but he explains that their recruitment is a desperate measure borne out of the need to train young fighters that can secure their town and keep away the Al Shabaab.
“They are ready to defend their country and fight Al Shabaab. We have fighters in our militia who train others. And [we work with] the SNA which trains the militia. If government doesn’t come to our help, the militia is ready to confront Al Shabaab,” he said.
Eye on Ramadhan
However, the intricacy of this conflict is that although Al Shabaab is the biggest threat, it is by no means the only enemy.
Often, because each clan recruits and controls its own militia, this breeds inter-clan clashes — a weakness that Al Shabaab exploits to strike at the civilian population that is loyal to the government in Mogadishu.
On May 3, Col Bamwiseki met clan elders at the headquarters of Battle Group XXII, asking them to prevail upon their militia to cease fighting amongst themselves, more so now that the holy month of Ramadhan is approaching.
Amisom commanders said they had received intelligence that Al Shabaab “has vowed to offer sacrifice” during Ramadhan that starts mid this month, a situation that requires fighters to be alert and defend their families.
The firstborn of six siblings, Abdul is happy to work without pay but to ensure security of his family. Sometimes he receives food and clothes as compensation for his services.
The teenager first sighted Al Shabaab fighters on the fateful day that his father was killed at Kilometer 50, six years ago.
He has since avenged his father’s death, or so he says.
“I killed one Al Shabaab. They were three and I killed one, but the rest ran away and I grabbed their gun during a battle at Kilometre 50 a year or two after joining the clan militia,” he says, pointing to the AK-47 in his hands.
Fact is, Abdul had already killed a grown man when he was just nine years old, even as advocacy groups that oppose the use of children in armed conflict such as the Romeo Dallaire Initiative, have since 2015 trained Amisom and SNA personnel on child protection.
However, considering they never co-opt clan leaders who draft underage fighters into militia, child soldiering will remain a part of this conflict.