Children in Armed Conflict – stories of trauma and rehabilitation
Khadra*- Guardian of Bashir*Khadra was at a loss when her 14-year old nephew Bashir disappeared one day. As the family searched tirelessly for the boy, Khadra was inconsolable.
“I was worried and afraid, we searched for him for 15 days,” she says. The family, who suspected he had joined Al Shabaab, received a call from Bashir as their search entered its third week. They discovered that Bashir, along with some of his school friends, had joined the militant group after being persuaded by some of its members.
“Al Shabaab made promises and a lot of the children he knew had joined so he went with them,” Khadra says sadly. “He was just 14, they were just kids and they didn’t understand what they were getting involved in.”
The family received no word from Bashir for almost a year until they heard that he had been captured in a battle between Al Shabab and AMISOM, and was being held by the military forces.
Khadra’s brother went to the military barracks and discovered the boy had been in military custody for a short time, and were told that he would be held for longer.
“AMISOM held him for two months, and we thought it was like jail,” she says. “We didn’t know if he was alive, or what they were planning to do with him.”
Bashir was handed over to UNICEF who placed him in a counseling and social reintegration program by the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre which is supported with funding from the European Union. Staff at the Centre explained to Khadra that Bashir needed to join an Interim Care Centre (ICC) and undergo psychosocial counseling, after which he would join an education and vocational training program.
For Khadra, Bashir had become a completely different person since he disappeared when he was 14.
“He was a totally different person before and after. He was in shock, and he was traumatized. Whenever you would ask him how he was he would say ‘I’m fine’ and cut the conversation,” Khadra says.
Bashir was in the ICC for 7 months, where he also received eye surgery for one of the wounds he had sustained during his time as a fighter. Although he is still tight-lipped about his experience in combat, his aunt thinks the program changed his life for the better.
“Until now he doesn’t want to say what he did, he is normal and happy now, and he doesn’t cut conversations short,” Khadra says. “He understands the value of education. This is a good program, otherwise these children would be troublemakers.”
Khadra says the only way to guarantee his future is for him to continue with his education.
“There is still the danger of recruitment, but now that he is someone who understands and is literate, he is not interested in Al Shabaab,” says Khadra. “He is very happy now, he talks about the program and what he wants to do in the future.”
Bashir*, 16- Former Al Shabaab fighterBashir is slight in frame and stands at about 5”5. He has a sweet smile, and inquisitive eyes— making eye contact when spoken to, but otherwise staring off into the distance or at his hands, all the while fiddling with whatever is in reach. He is quick to grin, and answers questions matter-of-factly.
At 14, Bashir left his small hometown and joined Al Shabaab, encouraged by some of his peers.
“Friends from school said it was the best, and so I joined them,” he says. “I thought it was going to be good, but it ended up being bad; there were lots of guns and fights.”
He says that the neighbors informed the family of where he had gone, and that he only managed to speak to them briefly after he left.
Bashir is reluctant to say what exactly he did for Al Shabaab, stating only that he was a foot soldier, and that there were many others like him.
“I saw many kids younger and older than me,” he says. Children were used for different jobs including the retrieval of weapons from fighters who were killed, as well as soldiers, errand boys, and human shields. Bashir sustained shrapnel wounds in his legs and one of his eyes from his first time in a fight between Al Shabaab and the African peacekeepers - AMISOM.
“The first time I fought I was scared and terrified of being shot,” he says. The second time he was in a battle in 2012 he was captured.
“It was a Thursday morning, and it was raining,” says Bashir. “People woke up, but they weren’t ready. AMISOM came in, and those that ran away got caught.”
As the battle raged, and only a handful of fighters escaped, Bashir watched as others were killed.
“Five of my friends died, and three died in front of me,” he says, his voice is low and he is shifting in his seat uncomfortably. “I was really scared and really shocked, and I still have nightmares as if it is happening right in front of me.”
Bashir was taken to a military barracks by AMISOM. UNICEF then sent him to an Interim Care Center (ICC) run by the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre with funding from the European Union as part of the UNICEF rehabilitation programme for Children Associated with Armed Forces and Armed Groups (CAAFAG) where he took part in his first counseling session.
“After joining Elman, the counsellor made me talk, and talk, non-stop,” he says as a big smile spreads across his face. “He was fun and nice though.”
After seven months of counseling, and surgery to extract shrapnel in his legs, and one of his eyes (which until then he could barely see through,) Bashir moved in with his aunt Khadra, and began education and vocational training in day courses with Elman.
Bashir is now studying electrical repairs, because he says he wants to work for the community. His dream is to own an electrical shop in Mogadishu.
Halima*, 18: Husband joined Al Shabaab and chased her away to an IDP camp in MogadishuWhen she was 15 years old, Halima was married to an older man and had two children. However one day he left taking the girl and boy then aged one and two and never returned.
“The father took my two children, and threatened to kill me if I followed,” she says. Halima sought refuge with her mother and stepfather at an IDP camp in Mogadishu where she heard that her husband had joined Al Shabaab to work as a mechanic for them.
“I used to call, but he told me he would kill me if kept calling. He even lied to me once and said that one of my children was dead, to make me grieve and stop calling.
“My uncles checked and they said the children were ok,” she adds, visibly shaken as she recounts the incident. “I was heartbroken for two months, all I could do was cry.”
Women in the IDP camp, who had children enrolled in courses at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre which is supported by UNICEF with funding from the European Union, encouraged her to look at the services available. As she was under 18, she qualified for the free courses taught to vulnerable youth and she enrolled in the cooking and business vocational training courses.
“I didn’t think anyone would help let alone that I would find a free school,” Halima says. “I joined the cooking and business class, because it could be good for me to open a restaurant. Most restaurants are opened by men, and I want to be the first woman to open a restaurant.”
Halima is working hard to realize this dream; she hopes that one day the situation will stabilize, and that she will be able reclaim her children.
But Halima is optimistic, and grateful for what she has learned. “I joined the program as someone heartbroken and miserable, I didn’t think I would learn and I didn’t see myself where I am today,” she says. “I was counseled, given food, and I was told not to be afraid.”
She says the UNICEF-supported program has made her a stronger person. “If I knew then that I could work and be independent, I wouldn’t have stayed in the rural areas alone with this man.”
When asked what she would change about society, Halima says there are many things, but the first thing she would get rid of is arranged marriages.
“ My wish for my daughter is to tell her to learn, and grow, and be educated, ” she says.
Khalid*, 17: Former SNA soldier
When Khalid was 16 he joined the Somali National Army. Driven by poverty and hunger, he went to a local recruitment center, and signed up for training. He received basic training at Jazeera camp and was sent to Afgoye on the outskirts of the capital Mogadishu.
“I didn’t even know how to write, I joined because of hunger,” he says. “I did three months at Jazeera training camp, then you are given a gun and told to go.”
Armed and aimless, Khalid joined other young men who were patrolling the town. They would often set up illegal checkpoints, and stop oncoming vehicles. After going unpaid for several months, Khalid decided to leave and join the social reintegration project, at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre, one of which is based in Afgoye. He joined because the Centre, which is supported by UNICEF with funding from the EU, served free lunch.
After three days, he says he was bored of having to attend courses but friends he made in the program however, encouraged him to stay.
“I was bored, but my classmates pulled me back,” he says. “My life completely turned around.”
While Khalid was giving the Centre a second try, his friends who had continued as an armed group had a deadly encounter.
“My friends set up an illegal checkpoint, and eight of them were killed by AMISOM,” he says. “If I hadn’t gone to Elman, I would have been there. God saved me.”
After four months in the Elman Centre, Khalid along with one of his friends in the program decided to go into business together; Khalid had studied plumbing, and his friend had studied electricity. The two are running a thriving business. For Khalid, the opportunity to learn and create a business makes him wish the same for others.
“I used to ask people for things - now they are asking me,” he says. “I want others to learn and get the chances I had. If your brother is hungry, then so are you.”
Farah, 18: Vulnerable/At risk
Farah*, 18, is seated in a plastic garden chair in the counseling office of the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre. His long lanky frame is slightly bent over, and his left leg is stretched out in front of him. He often speaks with his fingers hovering above his top lip, and isn’t quick to smile or give long-winded responses; he is soft spoken, and at first only responds in one or two words, rarely making eye contact.
As the only boy of three children, Farah was the family breadwinner from a young age. At 16, he was chasing trucks transporting the mildly narcotic leaf called khat, and selling what he could gather from them in the market, in Mogadishu’s Hamarweyne neighborhood. One afternoon in 2012, a car bomb exploded, and Farah, who was right next to it, passed out.
“I was just selling khat, and then there was a bomb,” he says. “I didn’t know that I had lost a leg until I was in surgery.” He massages his left thigh as he says this.
“I was in recovery for four months,” he adds quietly. He lifts his shirt to show burn marks and scars on his stomach. “I was the only son my mother had, and I knew I couldn’t go back to chasing trucks and selling khat.” For most children and teenagers who are khat vendors, running after the trucks and catching what they can of the loose stalks is the only way they can earn their living. Farah knew that he would no longer be able to do that.
He says he saw people who were coming to the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre, supported by UNICEF with EU funding and joined them.
“I started the class on mobile phones, because I knew I could do work while seated,” he says. “I made friends when I came here.” With vocational training, Farah realized that he wasn’t a burden on anyone, that he could work and support his family and aspire to build a thriving mobile business.
“Programs like this are important, because there are people at home who don’t know about these opportunities,” Farah says. “I just want to work, and my life changed when I came here.”
* Names of children have been changed to protect their identity.