Somali refugees recruited to fight Islamist militia

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

DADAAB, KENYA - The U.S.-backed government of Somalia and its Kenyan allies have recruited hundreds of Somali refugees, including children, to fight in a war against al-Shabab, an Islamist militia linked to al-Qaeda, according to former recruits, their relatives and community leaders.

Many of the recruits were taken from the sprawling Dadaab refugee camps in northeastern Kenya, which borders Somalia. Somali government recruiters and Kenyan soldiers came to the camps late last year, promising refugees as much as $600 a month to join a force advertised as supported by the United Nations or the United States, the former recruits and their families said.

"They have stolen my son from me," said Noor Muhamed, 70, a paraplegic refugee whose son Abdi was recruited.

Across this region, children and young men are vanishing. All sides in Somalia's conflict are recruiting refugees to fight in a remote battleground in the global war on terrorism from which they fled, community leaders say.

It is unclear whether recruiting by the governments of Kenya and Somalia is ongoing. But their military officers continue to train refugees at a heavily guarded base near the northern Kenyan town of Isiolo as the Somali government prepares for a long-planned offensive against the Shabab.

A second camp is in Manyani, a training station for the Kenya Wildlife Service in southern Kenya, according to former recruits, relatives, community leaders and U.N. investigators.

"They told us we were going to Somalia soon," said Hassan Farah, 23, who escaped from the Isiolo camp last month.

Farah, who was injured in a 2008 bombing in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, first spent more than two months at Manyani. "I saw 12-year-old children at the camp," said Farah, who has a jagged scar on his left arm. He escaped by bribing a water truck driver to sneak him out.

The Kenyan government has acknowledged that it is helping train police officers for Somalia's weak interim government but said that the recruits were flown in from Mogadishu. "No one is recruited from the refugee camps," said Alfred Mutua, a Kenyan government spokesman.

But a recent U.N. report on Somalia confirmed the recruitment of refugees, including underage youths, for military training. Kenya's training program, the report said, is a violation of a U.N. arms embargo, which requires nations to get permission from the U.N. Security Council before assisting Somalia's security efforts.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the U.N. special representative to Somalia, said he has not personally seen evidence to act on. "If this recruiting is happening, we have to condemn it," he said.

Recruiting refugees is a violation of international law, and enlisting children under 15 constitutes war crimes, human rights groups say.

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