But Awil is different in two notable ways: he is shouldering a fully automatic, fully loaded Kalashnikov assault rifle; and he is working for a military that is substantially armed and financed by the United States.
“You!” he shouts at a driver trying to sneak past his checkpoint, his cherubic face turning violently angry.
“You know what I’m doing here!” He shakes his gun menacingly. “Stop your car!”
The driver halts immediately. In Somalia, lives are lost quickly, and few want to take their chances with a moody 12-year-old.
It is well known that Somalia’s radical Islamist insurgents are plucking children off soccer fields and turning them into fighters. But Awil is not a rebel. He is working for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, a critical piece of the American counterterrorism strategy in the Horn of Africa.
According to Somali human rights groups and United Nations officials, the Somali government, which relies on assistance from the West to survive, is fielding hundreds of children or more on the front lines, some as young as 9.
Child soldiers are deployed across the globe, but according to the United Nations, the Somali government is among the “most persistent violators” of sending children into war, finding itself on a list with notorious rebel groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Somali government officials concede that they have not done the proper vetting. Officials also revealed that the United States government was helping pay their soldiers, an arrangement American officials confirmed, raising the possibility that the wages for some of these child combatants may have come from American taxpayers.
United Nations officials say they have offered the Somali government specific plans to demobilize the children. But Somalia’s leaders, struggling for years to withstand the insurgents’ advances, have been paralyzed by bitter infighting and are so far unresponsive.
Several American officials also said that they were concerned about the use of child soldiers and that they were pushing their Somali counterparts to be more careful. But when asked how the American government could guarantee that American money was not being used to arm children, one of the officials said, “I don’t have a good answer for that.”
According to Unicef, only two countries have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the use of soldiers younger than 15: the United States and Somalia.
Many human rights groups find this unacceptable, and President Obama himself, when this issue was raised during his campaign, did not disagree.
“It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land,” he said.
All across this lawless land, smooth, hairless faces peek out from behind enormous guns. In blown-out buildings, children chamber bullets twice the size of their fingers. In neighborhoods by the sea, they run checkpoints and face down four-by-four trucks, though they can barely see over the hood.
Somali government officials admit that in the rush to build a standing army, they did not discriminate.
“I’ll be honest,” said a Somali government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the subject, “we were trying to find anyone who could carry a gun.”
Awil struggles to carry his. It weighs about 10 pounds. The strap digs into his bony shoulders, and he is constantly shifting it from one side to the other with a grimace.
Sometimes he gets a helping hand from his comrade Ahmed Hassan, who is 15. Ahmed said he was sent to Uganda more than two years ago for army training, when he was 12, though his claim could not be independently verified. American military advisers have been helping oversee the training of Somali government soldiers in Uganda.
“One of the things I learned,” Ahmed explained eagerly, “is how to kill with a knife.”
Children do not have many options in Somalia. After the government collapsed in 1991, an entire generation was let loose on the streets. Most children have never sat in a classroom or played in a park. Their bones have been stunted by conflict-induced famines, their psyches damaged by all the killings they have witnessed.
“What do I enjoy?” Awil asked. “I enjoy the gun.”
Like many other children here, the war has left him hard beyond his years. He loves cigarettes and is addicted to qat, a bitter leaf that, for the few hours he chews it each day, makes grim reality fade away.
He was abandoned by parents who fled to Yemen, he said, and joined a militia when he was about 7. He now lives with other government soldiers in a dive of a house littered with cigarette boxes and smelly clothes. Awil does not know exactly how old he is. His commander says he is around 12, but birth certificates are rare.
Awil gobbles down greasy rice with unwashed hands because he does not know where his next meal is coming from. He is paid about $1.50 a day, but only every now and then, like most soldiers. His bed is a fly-covered mattress that he shares with two other child soldiers, Ali Deeq, 10, and Abdulaziz, 13.
“He should be in school,” said Awil’s commander, Abdisalam Abdillahi. “But there is no school.”
Ali Sheikh Yassin, vice-chairman of Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Mogadishu, said that about 20 percent of government troops (thought to number 5,000 to 10,000) were children and that about 80 percent of the rebels were. The leading insurgent group, which has drawn increasingly close to Al Qaeda, is called the Shabab, which means youth in Arabic.
“These kids can be so easily brainwashed,” Mr. Ali said. “They don’t even have to be paid.”
One of the myriad dangers Awil faces is constant gunfire between his squad and another group of government soldiers from a different clan. The Somali government is racked by divisions from the prime minister’s office down to the street.
“I’ve lost hope,” said Sheik Yusuf Mohamed Siad, a defense minister who abruptly quit in the past week, like several other ministers. “All this international training, it’s just training soldiers for the Shabab,” he added, saying defections had increased.
“Go ask the president what he’s accomplished in the past year,” Sheik Yusuf said, laughing. “Absolutely nothing.”
Advisers to President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed say they have fine-tuned their plans for a coming offensive, making it more of a gradual military operation to slowly take the city back from the insurgents.
Awil is eager for action. His commanders say he has already proven himself fighting against the Shabab, who used to bully him in the market.
“That made me want to join the T.F.G.,” he said. “With them, I feel like I am amongst my brothers.”
“Take benefit of five before five:
your youth before your old age,
your health before your sickness,
your wealth before your poverty,
your free-time before your preoccupation,
and your life before your death.”—
I’ve seen a grown man hold his head n cry,
pursuing the best things in life.
A leader looks in the eyes of his followersn lies,
pursuing the best things in life.
An 18 year old boy is shot n dies,
pursuing the best things in life.
A motherless child sucks poison out of a pipe,
pursuing the best things in life.
A young girl sells her body to the camera n lights,
pursuing the best things in life…
"If The Shoe Fits” by Mutadhar al-Zaidi (The dude who threw his shoes at Bush)
“I traveled through my burning land and saw with my own eyes the pain of the victims, and hear with my own ears the screams of the bereaved and the orphans”
Here I am, free. But my country is still a prisoner of war.
Firstly, I give my thanks and my regards to everyone who stood beside me, whether inside my country, in the Islamic world, in the free world. There has been a lot of talk about the action and about the person who took it, and about the hero and the heroic act, and the symbol and the symbolic act.
But, simply, I answer: What compelled me to confront is the injustice that befell my people, and how the occupation wanted to humiliate my homeland by putting it under its boot.
And how it wanted to crush the skulls of (the homeland’s) sons under its boots, whether sheikhs, women, children or men. And during the past few years, more than a million martyrs fell by the bullets of the occupation and the country is now filled with more than 5 million orphans, a million widows and hundreds of thousands of maimed. And many millions of homeless because of displacement inside and outside the country.
We used to be a nation in which the Arab would share with the Turkman and the Kurd and the Assyrian and the Sabean and the Yazid his daily bread. And the Shiite would pray with the Sunni in one line. And the Muslim would celebrate with the Christian the birthday of Christ, may peace be upon him. And despite the fact that we shared hunger under sanctions for more than 10 years, for more than a decade.
Our patience and our solidarity did not make us forget the oppression. Until we were invaded by the illusion of liberation that some had. (The occupation) divided one brother from another, one neighbor from another, and the son from his uncle. It turned our homes into never-ending funeral tents. And our graveyards spread into parks and roadsides. It is a plague. It is the occupation that is killing us, that is violating the houses of worship and the sanctity of our homes and that is throwing thousands daily into makeshift prisons.
I am not a hero, and I admit that. But I have a point of view and I have a stance. It humiliated me to see my country humiliated. And to see my Baghdad burned. And my people being killed. Thousands of tragic pictures remained in my head, and this weighs on me every day and pushes me toward the righteous path, the path of confrontation, the path of rejecting injustice, deceit and duplicity. It deprived me of a good night’s sleep.
Dozens, no, hundreds, of images of massacres that would turn the hair of a newborn white used to bring tears to my eyes and wound me. The scandal of Abu Ghraib. The massacre of Fallujah, Najaf, Haditha, Sadr City, Basra, Diyala, Mosul, Tal Afar, and every inch of our wounded land. In the past years, I traveled through my burning land and saw with my own eyes the pain of the victims, and hear with my own ears the screams of the bereaved and the orphans. And a feeling of shame haunted me like an ugly name because I was powerless.
And as soon as I finished my professional duties in reporting the daily tragedies of the Iraqis, and while I washed away the remains of the debris of the ruined Iraqi houses, or the traces of the blood of victims that stained my clothes, I would clench my teeth and make a pledge to our victims, a pledge of vengeance.
The opportunity came, and I took it.
I took it out of loyalty to every drop of innocent blood that has been shed through the occupation or because of it, every scream of a bereaved mother, every moan of an orphan, the sorrow of a rape victim, the teardrop of an orphan.
I say to those who reproach me: Do you know how many broken homes that shoe that I threw had entered because of the occupation? How many times it had trodden over the blood of innocent victims? And how many times it had entered homes in which free Iraqi women and their sanctity had been violated? Maybe that shoe was the appropriate response when all values were violated.
When I threw the shoe in the face of the criminal, Bush, I wanted to express my rejection of his lies, his occupation of my country, my rejection of his killing my people. My rejection of his plundering the wealth of my country, and destroying its infrastructure. And casting out its sons into a diaspora.
After six years of humiliation, of indignity, of killing and violations of sanctity, and desecration of houses of worship, the killer comes, boasting, bragging about victory and democracy. He came to say goodbye to his victims and wanted flowers in response.
Put simply, that was my flower to the occupier, and to all who are in league with him, whether by spreading lies or taking action, before the occupation or after.
I wanted to defend the honor of my profession and suppressed patriotism on the day the country was violated and its high honor lost. Some say: Why didn’t he ask Bush an embarrassing question at the press conference, to shame him? And now I will answer you, journalists. How can I ask Bush when we were ordered to ask no questions before the press conference began, but only to cover the event. It was prohibited for any person to question Bush.
And in regard to professionalism: The professionalism mourned by some under the auspices of the occupation should not have a voice louder than the voice of patriotism. And if patriotism were to speak out, then professionalism should be allied with it.
I take this opportunity: If I have wronged journalism without intention, because of the professional embarrassment I caused the establishment, I wish to apologize to you for any embarrassment I may have caused those establishments. All that I meant to do was express with a living conscience the feelings of a citizen who sees his homeland desecrated every day.
History mentions many stories where professionalism was also compromised at the hands of American policymakers, whether in the assassination attempt against Fidel Castro by booby-trapping a TV camera that CIA agents posing as journalists from Cuban TV were carrying, or what they did in the Iraqi war by deceiving the general public about what was happening. And there are many other examples that I won’t get into here.
But what I would like to call your attention to is that these suspicious agencies — the American intelligence and its other agencies and those that follow them — will not spare any effort to track me down (because I am) a rebel opposed to their occupation. They will try to kill me or neutralize me, and I call the attention of those who are close to me to the traps that these agencies will set up to capture or kill me in various ways, physically, socially or professionally.
And at the time that the Iraqi prime minister came out on satellite channels to say that he didn’t sleep until he had checked in on my safety, and that I had found a bed and a blanket, even as he spoke I was being tortured with the most horrific methods: electric shocks, getting hit with cables, getting hit with metal rods, and all this in the backyard of the place where the press conference was held. And the conference was still going on and I could hear the voices of the people in it. And maybe they, too, could hear my screams and moans.
In the morning, I was left in the cold of winter, tied up after they soaked me in water at dawn. And I apologize for Mr. Maliki for keeping the truth from the people. I will speak later, giving names of the people who were involved in torturing me, and some of them were high-ranking officials in the government and in the army.
I didn’t do this so my name would enter history or for material gains. All I wanted was to defend my country, and that is a legitimate cause confirmed by international laws and divine rights. I wanted to defend a country, an ancient civilization that has been desecrated, and I am sure that history — especially in America — will state how the American occupation was able to subjugate Iraq and Iraqis, until its submission.
They will boast about the deceit and the means they used in order to gain their objective. It is not strange, not much different from what happened to the Native Americans at the hands of colonialists. Here I say to them (the occupiers) and to all who follow their steps, and all those who support them and spoke up for their cause: Never.
Because we are a people who would rather die than face humiliation.
And, lastly, I say that I am independent. I am not a member of any politicalparty, something that was said during torture — one time that I’m far-right, another that I’m a leftist. I am independent of any political party, and my future efforts will be in civil service to my people and to any who need it, without waging any political wars, as some said that I would. My efforts will be toward providing care for widows and orphans, and all those whose lives were damaged by the occupation. I pray for mercy upon the souls of the martyrs who fell in wounded Iraq, and for shame upon those who occupied Iraq and everyone who assisted them in their abominable acts. And I pray for peace upon those who are in their graves, and those who are oppressed with the chains of imprisonment. And peace be upon you who are patient and looking to God for release.
And to my beloved country I say: If the night of injustice is prolonged, it will not stop the rising of a sun and it will be the sun of freedom.
One last word. I say to the government: It is a trust that I carry from my fellow detainees. They said, ‘Muntadhar, if you get out, tell of our plight to the omnipotent powers’ — I know that only God is omnipotent and I pray to Him — ‘remind them that there are dozens, hundreds, of victims rotting in prisons because of an informant’s word.’
They have been there for years, they have not been charged or tried.
They’ve only been snatched up from the streets and put into these prisons. And now, in front of you, and in the presence of God, I hope they can hear me or see me. I have now made good on my promise of reminding the government and the officials and the politicians to look into what’s happening inside the prisons. The injustice that’s caused by the delay in the judicial system.