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Disabled Somalis are often regarded as burdens to their families making them prime recruits for the al-Shabaab militant group fighting for control of Somalia. Somalia's rampant poverty, on-going conflicts and famine have made it difficult for disabled citizens to seek help, some turning to the militants as their only choice.
According to the World Health Organization 10% of the world’s population is composed of disabled people, but it is unknown how many Somalis are affected as reliable data is difficult to compile due to decades of conflict. A 2011 report titled ‘Disability Rights in Somalia’ released by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency confirms that the number of disabilities in Somalia increases by 20 people daily, and suggests 12-15% of the population are disabled. The World Blind Union reported Somalia does not have a national coordination agency responsible for establishing disability policies. Due to lack of sufficient resources Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has been focused on the most fundamental issues such as security, education and narrowly on health. Other non-governmental organisations like the Disability Action Network (DAN) that operates in Somaliland are unable to access areas that are controlled by the insurgent group. As a result, disabled people are often left to fend for themselves.
In an effort to understand the extent of the recruitment by al-Shabaab, Somalia Report visited Faafa Haduun and Eel Ade in the suburbs of Bardeere in Gedo region where al-Shabaab militia are reported to be exploiting disabled persons under the pretext that they are fighting a ‘holy war’.
Abdi is one of five deaf al-Shabaab’s fighters in this area. Married with children, Abdi was well trained by the militia and is able to fight despite his inability to hear gunfire or other sounds. A woman close to Abdi who operates a small tea shop in Faafa Haduun, told Somalia Report that he also used to kidnap suspects who are known to the al-Shabaab officials in the area.
Warsame, a former employee with Médecins Sans Frontières, an international, independent organisation for medical humanitarian aid, confirmed the role of Abdi in the Shabaab mechanism. MSF was prohibited by al-Shabaab from operating in parts of southern Somalia last year.
“Yes I know that deaf man is al-Shabaab. He is callous and can even go to the extent of shooting anyone if they refuse to comply with his orders. He used to charge $20 per day to escort people to and from al-Shabaab controlled areas. This is the only way the man can sustain his family in addition to the undisclosed monthly salary that he receives from the militia,” explained Warsame.
Both Warsame and the tea shop owner said Abdi is very religious and devoted to his job as a militant.
Somalia Report also spoke to Ali Muhamud, a disabled fighter who was recruited as a spy and currently lives in Eel Ade in Gedo region.
"I lost my legs ten years ago in an explosion in Mogadishu. After finding it difficult to cope with the city due to sporadic fighting, I decided to come to this village. I thank God I am still alive despite the difficulties I encountered in my life," he explained. "Al-Shabaab told me that every person should fight for the sake of God regardless of their abilities, so as a crippled person I was forced to work for the Mujahidins as a spy.”
Ali explained how he lived in fear of the militants for the last three years.
"I heard the mujahidins were encouraging the disabled people in the major cities like Mogadishu and Baidoa to physically involve themselves in the holy war. They tell them to participate in suicide bombing since they cannot fight at the battle front, so I was fearing that one day it will be my turn to do so,” Ali told Somalia Report.
Farhia Hassan, a local resident, explained what she had learned about al-Shabaab's recruitment of disabled people.
"I know a man who has both legs amputated because of a lorry accident a couple of years back, I don’t want to name him because this is a sensitive matter. After the incursion of al-Shabaab in to our area in 2007, he was forced to join the militants since they had fewer fighters back then. He was used by the militants to convince the locals to support the mujahidins and the boys to fight the Somali enemy. He was good at this despite his inability to walk; he crawls from one point to another. Some two years later after the militia gained control and public trust from the locals, he was assigned to take care of the mujahidin’s cells where he was supposed to sit outside the cells in Bardeere taking care of the inmates,” she told Somalia Report.
She also clarified that the militia mostly consider the disabled people as a weapon to attack their enemy.
“They sometimes encourage the disabled people to carry out suicide bombing because they say the only way they can fight a holy war is by sacrificing their life, since they cannot physically engage themselves in fighting.” We asked her about their treatment of mentally ill people, Farhia said she had heard that in Baidabo and other cities like Mogadishu the militia exploits the mentally ill, “When the militia want to bomb their enemies in an open place they do it mostly by sending the mentally ill people to their opponents carrying a letter with explosives.”
Dahir Gamey is an al-Shabaab senior judge and a major contributor to the increasing number of disabled persons in this war torn country. Under al-Shabaab's version of Sharia law, numerous cases qualify for amputation when found guilty. Most are theft related in a poverty stricken society, spying allegations in an conflict ridden environment and adultery which earns one death by stoning.
A good example is Ismail Khalif Abdulle, who was among four young men accused of stealing mobile phones and pistols in Mogadishu. In June 2009, the teenagers were cross amputated after a judgement was passed by Dahir Gamey to that effect. In October the same year, the militants also cross amputated Nur Hussein in Afgoye after alleging that he was a spy.
After subjecting many to such inhumane treatment, the militia continues to encourage the amputated and disabled populace to take part in suicide attacks arguing that they are of little use in society. These victims eventually engage in dangerous activities in order to survive.
Somalia Report tried to contact al-Shabaab militia for their perspective on this matter but have received no response.
Mr. Hussein Abdullahi, a TFG official stated that the federal government of Somalia upholds the rights of the disabled people and does not under any circumstances arrest or mistreat them. He went ahead and alleged that al-Shabaab fighters go to the the extent of killing their injured fighters who have sustained serious injuries since they consider them a burden during their operations.
The provision of socio-economic support for this population is a key priority for both their survival and development. Somalia being a poverty ridden country lacks adequate access to qualified medical practitioners, rehabilitation services and facilities as well as social inclusion programmes for disabled people. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that almost 1.5 million Somalis are internally displaced and lack access to humanitarian aid. Equipment that will improve the mobility and lifestyle of the disabled like wheelchairs, hearing aids and crutches are not easily available. The disabled continue to lack access to education, economic and social services that are meant to improve livelihoods for all. Somalia is far from fulfilling the United Nations standard rule on equal opportunity for people with disabilities.
Every disabled individual who was interviewed for this report urged the government to establish laws that safeguard the rights of disabled citizens, ensure the provision of quality medical care and rehabilitation services. Somaliland is in the fore front in supporting its disabled population. The first school for individuals with hearing impairment is well established in Borama city where deaf children access primary and secondary education.