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Somalia, 11 February 2016: Never look back – former Somali child soldiers craft new lives

© UNICEF Somalia/2015/Rich

By Kun Li

Southern Somalia, 11 February 2016 – Seventeen-year-old Abdi, in the blue overalls of a trainee electrician, meticulously arranges red and blue electrical wires hooked onto a wooden board. Despite his best efforts – the florescent bulb refuses to light up.

“I used to be brave like a lion among the soldiers,” says Abdi matter-of-factly. “I was in war, fighting against other groups.”

Taking a break from the wires and bulbs, Abdi sits down to talk about the days when he was in camouflage rather than overalls. He was once a fighter, lured into Somalia’s long running conflict by ideology and the promise of a salary.

“At the beginning, we thought these people were good. Their ideology was based on religion,” says Abdi, his gaze growing intense and his hands gesturing, as if to rid himself of the burden that he has been carrying ever since. “But eventually we realized that their ideology was a misinterpretation of Islam. They were doing nothing but harming the communities we belong to. So I left.

“My family was so happy to see me. But I didn’t know what to do with myself, and how to spend my days.”

With limited education, no skills and no hope of finding a decent job, Abdi soon found himself trapped in yet another limbo. He then heard about the vocational training programmes for former child soldiers. With the encouragement of his family, Abdi enrolled one supported by UNICEF and run by INTERSOS, an Italian NGO which offers training in carpentry, plumbing, electrical and tailoring skills.

© UNICEF Somalia/2015/Rich
Boys formerly associated with armed forces and those at risk of being recruited, learn about electronics at a training centre run by UNICEF partner, INTERSOS. Close to 100 boys and girls are enrolled in the vocational training at INTERSOS, including plumb

“I see myself finishing this course then finding a good job as a professional electrician,” says Abdi. His voice is filled with confidence. Make the best out of the second chance he is having is clearly his top priority. And he is not alone.

Back in the courtyard, activities are in full swing. One corner is occupied by the carpentry group. A young man works a power drill with great enthusiasm, while another tackles a pieces of wood with an equally loud sander. The plumbing group practice their skills with tools of various shapes and sizes.

In a large classroom, a group of young women are also busy on sewing machines – their familiarity with the flywheels and pedals make it hard to tell that they only started learning how to use the machines six months ago. Some 30 of the 100 trainees at this centre are girls or young women once recruited by armed groups or at-risk of being recruited.

UNICEF estimates that there are around 5,000 children and youth currently within the ranks of various armed groups, most of them in the Central and South regions.

“I joined Al-Shabaab because I was still a child – I was too young to make decisions,” says Ali, another trainee. With funding from the European Union, DFID, Canada and the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), UNICEF is able to support these children and help local authorities, NGOs, civil society and communities protect those who are at-risk and provide reintegration support to those who want to start a new life.

When they graduate, each of the trainees receives a startup kit, and is given continued support in the reintegration process.

The trainees are determined they will not go back to their old lives.

“It is very stressful to be with those groups,” said Ali. “For those who are thinking of joining, I would ask them to think again. It will not give you a good life - it will only lead you to death. Only empowering ourselves through education can give us a good life.”

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