Children recruited by the armed Islamist group al-Shabab, at a training camp in the Afgooye Corridor, west of Mogadishu, southern Somalia, in February 2011.
Children recruited by the armed Islamist group al-Shabab, at a training camp in the Afgooye Corridor, west of Mogadishu, southern Somalia, in February 2011. HRW

Somalia's armed Islamist group Al-Shabab are increasingly recruiting young children to fight alongside them and act as human shields on the battlefields, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.

The study, released two days ahead of a London conference in Somalia, is based on a compilation of nearly 200 interviews that were conducted over the past two years with Somali children as well as those youngsters who escaped from the extremist group. Parents and teachers who fled to Kenya for safety have also given an account of the violations imposed on these children.

Not only are the children forced to serve as cannon fodder to safeguard adult militants, young girls who are abducted straight from school or their homes are pushed into marriage with these rebel fighters, the report said.

Other startling details revealed how these children were led straight to their deaths, as many of them are being deployed as suicide bombers. According to Tirana Hassan from HRW, the children undergo the same training as soldiers, before being sent to the frontlines as a means of distraction. The opposition groups gun down these young recruits, while the Al-Shabab start firing from behind, the CNN said.

Out of all my classmates - about 100 boys - only two of us escaped, the rest were killed. The children were cleaned off. The children all died and the bigger soldiers ran away, HRW quoted a teenaged boy who was recruited by Al-Shabab in 2010.

The HRW, an international NGO looking into research and advocacy on human rights, also brought to light the plight of Somali children placed in these terror camps. Besides being trained for warfare, the children are incessantly subjected to unlawful violations such as abuse and rape.

The Islamist group is not the only force recruiting children to act upon such brutal acts. Somali government forces and pro-government militias, which are long known to be corrupt, are also said to be recruiting them for such purposes, the HRW report said.

As per the report, children are being targeted as a means to replenish the dwindling ranks in the militant group, caused as a result of perpetual warfare. Families who fought against the recruitment of their children face severe consequences and even death, the report said. In one instance, a teacher who tried to stop Al-Shabab from taking his students was shot dead in front of the class.

For children in Somalia, nowhere is safe, Zama Coursen-Neff, deputy children's rights director at the NGO said in the report.

Al-Shabab is an Arabic term which translates to The Youth or The Boys. The Somalia-based terrorist group has strong links to the Al-Qaeda, and has been fighting to impose its own strict form of Islamic law in the country. They are said to have banned the study of English and science in the school curriculum and instead imposed subjects related to Islam. Due to such restrictions in schools that are constantly targeted as a part of the recruitment campaign, teachers fled and many children dropped out, the report said.

The NGO has now called on Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its allied groups with regard to the hiring of children in the armed forces.

The TFG should live up to its commitments to stop recruiting and using children as soldiers, and punish those who do. Governments backing the TFG should make clear that these abuses won't be tolerated, Coursen said.

HRW hopes that the issue of children's protection will be a matter of top priority when government representatives gather in London on Feb. 23 to discuss political solutions for war-torn Somalia.

If world leaders meeting in London want to address Somalia's future, it's crucial for them to protect this shattered generation of children from further horror and invest in their education and security, Coursen-Neff added in the report.

Somalia is not the only country known for inflicting such horror on children. During a period of intensified Palestinian-Israeli violence that started in 2000, gunmen surrounded themselves with children while shooting on Israeli forces. Various other reports have also suggested that in Afghanistan, the Taliban used women and children from their own communities as human shields against coalition forces around the year 2006.