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Orphans in Mogadishu face warfare, forced military recruitment, famine, drought, and potential abduction on a daily basis and will never see the inside of a classroom or medical clinic. Yet a few enterprising kids have found a way to survive by working for African Union troops in the city.
To find some sort of normalcy and a stability, approximately 45 street children under the age of 16 have approached the African Union peacekeepers, known as AMISOM, who are based throughout the capital.
Realizing that the soldiers and kids need one another, they struck a deal whereby children earn money by running errands since the soldiers are not allowed to leave their bases except on patrol.
Despite the risks of whizzing bullets or being caught by al-Shabaab insurgents - which has now diminished after the insurgents pulled out of their major bases in the city - the kids venture out of the AMISOM bases to buy necessities for the troops such as cell phones, small radios, sweets, soap, shampoos, airtime cards, and cigarettes. In return the kids earn between $1 - $4 depending on the task, according to children who spoke to Somalia Report.
Faysal Omar Hagi, a 14 year old, said has been working for AMISOM for the last two years, mainly for the Burundi contingent based at Jalle Siyad Barre’s former military academy near the industrial road in the southwest area of the capital.
The young man said he is afraid that if the AU soldiers end their presence in Mogadishu, he will not survive. Although Faysal said he does not have expectation of a bright future for serving AMISOM soldiers, it is steady income. It would be difficult for him to go back to his normal life of being a conductor.
“I used to be a bus conductor before I began working with the troops and it was at that time I was earning one thousand Somali shilling per day which is equivalent to $3," said Faysal.
The kids are easy to spot in Mogadishu’s streets, especially the government-controlled areas, AMISOM bases such as Halane Camp, Aden Adde international airport, Digfer Hospital, the sea port and areas nearby the presidential palace.
Anwar Mohamed Hussein, a 12-year-old orphan, told Somalia Report he matured since working for AU soldiers at the Halane camp near Mogadishu’s Aden Ade international airport.
“If I buy one mobile phone for one AMISOM soldier, I am awarded one dollar by that soldier," Anwar explained. “I had been schooled in a private orphanage, but I left in 2008 and now happy with my current life."
He said that the children try and share tasks so that nobody goes hungry.
"Both AU soldiers and Somali forces may need their shoes cleaned by us. If one of us is busy, the other will do it," said Anwar.
According to the local human rights lobbyists like Eydid Abdurrahman Aden, Mogadishu’s street children have been utterly neglected by the government and international community.
“If the ordinary people in the capital Mogadishu could decide to come together and collect small funds among them, we could protect the children including to those staying at AMISOM’s military compounds," Mr. Eydid told Somalia Report.
Risks to Children
Despite the legitimate errand running, some children have allegedly been tasked with dubious tasks for the soldiers.
Retired military officer, Yusuf Hagi Omar, told Somalia Report that AU soldiers, Somali forces and al-Shabaab have used kids to buy, sell and deliver ammunition.
“These kids could easily facilitate ammo exchanges or sell ammo in the black markets of Mogadishu and the other parts of the country,” said Yusuf.
But many of the kids like Anwar said had never been involved in black market for ammo exchanges.
UNICEF's Communication Officer for Somalia Iman Morooka told our correspondent that children under the age of 18 should not be put in any risky situation.
"Children should be in school rather than engaging in any form of labor that might compromise their safety," said the officer.
Small business owners in the areas nearby the AMISOM’s military compounds such as Aden Adde international airport and the sea-port told Somalia Report that they never exchanged large goods with the AU soldiers in the capital.
“AMISOM peacekeepers had never bought expensive goods from the markets in Mogadishu,“ said Somali businessman Abdi Kafi Muse.
Most of these kids have to go the other markets in the city such as Hamar Weyne district or Medina market district make purchases for AMISOM soldiers, according to Abdi Kafi.
AMISOM troops get their most important things like vegetables, oil, food or relevant items from Kampala the capital city of Uganda, according to an AU official.
When the troops want video screens to watch sporting events, however, they rely on kids to find and pay for televisions which usually run $80 in Mogadishu’s markets. Up to ten soldiers will split the cost of one television.
“Buying video screens and mobile phones are the most important things we do for the soldiers," said one of the boys employed by AMISOM.
Kids as a Security Risk
Several AU soldiers search the kids before they are allowed on the bases for fear that the child may have been brainwashed by al-Shabaab insurgents to conduct spying or suicide missions against AMISOM forces.
They also see the kids as neglected and in need of parental guidance or friendship.
“We consider kids as a close friends. They volunteer to help us since it is hard for us to buy something from Mogadishu’s markets for security reasons,” a Burundian soldier told Somalia Report.
Kids also serve important roles as Somali translators and money changers as the AU soldiers get their salaries in dollars, but need Somali shillings to purchase items in the market.
“Kids like Aden Nur have no jobs in the city and can't depend on their poor families so kids seek ways they survive by working for AMISOM soldiers,” a Somali government soldier who requested to be called Madobe told Somalia Report.
Although the al-Shabaab militants recently fled Mogadishu, the children still worry that the militants might return or those that remain hidden in the city might and hunt them down for helping AMISOM.
“I would be at risk of being beheaded by the al-Shabaab fighters because they recognized people like me who mostly work with AMISOM soldiers as a Murtad or infidel,” said Faysal Omar.
Mohamed Nur Farah, 20, was killed in Bakara market in late 2009 while he was trying to buy mobile phones for AU soldiers, according to his sister Fardowsa Nur Farah.
Fardowsa told Somalia Report that her family suspected al-Shabaab of killing her brother Mohamed because he received death threats while was serving AMISOM for six months.
Comparing AMISOM to Ethiopian force
Locals say that AMISOM has been far easier to live with and more accommodating than the Ethiopian forces which invaded Somalia in late 2006 and remained until early 2009.
The Ethiopians were accused of harassing anyone that spoke against their presence, including Somali women and children, according to residents. If one Ethiopian soldier was injured or killed by the insurgents, then Ethiopian troops would retaliate on innocent civilians who they suspected of working for al-Shabaab.
The collective punishment over the Somalis by Ethiopians led many ordinary residents to take part in the fighting against the Ethiopian invasion and very few children worked for them. Residents say that the AU troops are more polite than the Ethiopians, give medical assistance and have no history of aggression or conflict with Somalia, unlike neighboring Ethiopia.
That isn't to say that AMISOM has not had its problems. The peacekeeping force was for a long time accused of regularly shelling heavily populated areas such as Bakara Market as it returned fire against insurgents. However, AMISOM has made efforts to reduce this practice, as Human Rights' Watch noted in a recent report, and says it designated Bakara Market a 'no-fire zone' late last year.
"It (the HRW report) underscores our commitment to safeguarding the lives of ordinary civilians in Mogadishu in the conduct of our operations against extremist insurgents who use them as human shields,” AMISOM spokesman Paddy Ankunda said in a statement.