Children forced into soldiering in Mozambique – HRW

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An Islamic State (ISIS) linked armed group in northern Mozambique reportedly kidnaps boys to fight government forces in violation of the international prohibition on the use of child soldiers according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) .

The international non-government organisation (NGO), headquartered in New York has a South African office and reports the armed group, known locally as Al-Shabaab, abducted hundreds of boys, some as young as 12, trained them in bases across Cabo Delgado province and forced them to fight alongside adults. In Palma, parents said they watched their sons wield guns when they returned with other fighters to raid their village.

“Using children in fighting is cruel, unlawful and should never take place,” said Mausi Segun, HRW Africa director. “Mozambique’s Al-Shabaab should stop recruiting children and release every child in their ranks.”

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HRW spoke by phone with four parents of kidnapped boys, a former child soldier and two witnesses to abuses. The child soldier and witnesses escaped from an Al-Shabaab training base Mbau, where they were held captive for weeks. Their accounts are consistent with media reports that the armed group was kidnapping boys to be fighters.

A 42-year-old man said seven Al-Shabaab fighters kidnapped his 17-year-old son during a March attack on Palma. He said the gunmen found his family hiding from fighting on a farm.

“I was on my knees begging the Mashababos (local name for Al-Shabaab) to take me instead, while my wife grabbed my boy’s clothing to stop him walking away. One man hit my wife with an AK-47 to force her to release our son, while another threatened to kill us.”

Two other women said Al-Shabaab abducted their sons during a raid on Mocimboa da Praia in August 2020.

Three women who escaped from an Al-Shabaab base in Mbau said there are “hundreds of boys” in the ranks of the group. “They behave like adult men, even picking ‘wives’ from the kidnapped girls,” one woman said.

An18-year-old 18 and two 16-year-old friends were found by six Al-Shabaab fighters hiding in a farm during an attack on Mocimboa da Praia. The fighters argued about what to do with the boys and considered beheading them because their “hair styles” were against Islam. They forced the boys to walk blindfolded to the Mbau base.

“We joined other men and boys and were trained on how to use guns and knives to fight,” the young man said. “They told us we had to kill and fight for our land and to protect our religion, which is under attack in Mozambique.”

He escaped a month later, while on patrol duty, and lives in fear of being recaptured by the armed group.

In June 2021, the humanitarian organisation Save the Children estimated non-state armed groups in Cabo Delgado abducted at least 51 children, most of them girls, over the past year. A local group, Observatório do Meio Rural (OMR), reported kidnapped boys were expanding the ranks of armed groups in the area.

“Al-Shabaab’s growing use of children as fighters is the latest horrifying chapter in Cabo Delgado violence. Mozambican authorities should take steps to protect children, so they remain with their families and in school and aren’t exploited as weapons of war,” Segun said.

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