Street children in Mogadishu: Dodging the bullets [Archives:2008/1197/Reportage]

October 9 2008

Abdinasir Mohamed Guled
The Media Line

Somali children, many orphans, flock to the capital, Mogadishu, in search of a better life. But most find their way into a homeless existence making a pittance on the city's streets – with many being killed as the civil war rages on all around them.

Since Ethiopian troops entered Mogadishu in late December 2006, the Somali capital has descended into violence and chaos and the number of homeless children has dramatically increased. Those youths who refuse to join the Islamist rebels or clan militias remain especially disadvantaged.

Mohamed Ali Madey, an eight-year-old shoe shiner, came to Mogadishu in 2005 from Baidoa after his parents divorced.

Madey works mainly around the KM4 area, where violent clashes among Ethiopian armed forces, Transitional Federal Government (TFG) soldiers and Islamist militants often take place.

Calmly sitting on the pavement cleaning shoes for customers and chatting with some of his friends, Madey says that overall he is happy with his life, but he is concerned about the insecurity plaguing Mogadishu.

“I can earn a sufficient amount of money from this shoe-cleaning work, but the situation here is volatile and if fighting starts we are paralyzed because there will be bullets flying everywhere,” he says, as he laces up a pair of shoes he has just finished polishing.

Although his clothes are filthy, Madey is a tall, handsome boy. Seemingly embarrassed by this he explains that he usually tries to bathe once a week at his aunt's house in the Howlwadaag neighborhood, but he only gets a little food and a short time to wash each time he visits her.

Madey arrives at the street corner early every morning in an attempt to get more customers, but this is a dangerous practice because Ethiopian/TFG troops often set up roadblocks nearby. He is afraid he may be wounded in a roadside bombing or shot dead like his friend Yasin Adle Ahmed, who was killed by Ethiopian troops on Makka Al-Mukarrama Street nearby.

Madey thanks God for his survival thus far, and despite the deaths of several of his friends he regards himself as lucky.

“I am in fact fortunate because I am still alive and my friends were killed,” he comments.

Wanting to honor the memory of his late friends, Madey relates how some of them were killed.

“My friend Hassan Muruq was killed when Ugandan troops came under attack by armed men at KM4, where Hassan had been sleeping in front of a shop. I was with him, but I crawled away and escaped as I saw my friend Hassan pouring blood and taking his final breath,” he says.

Madey adds that a third friend, Hussein Shelare, died after a soldier shot him, mistaking him for an Islamist insurgent. Witnesses confirm Shelare was unarmed and had only been walking home from work in the Waberi district, a route he took regularly.

Another friend of Madey's, Yaqub Muse, was shot dead by Ethiopian troops whose convoy was blown up on Makka Al-Mukarrama Street the same day; yet a fifth friend, Abdirahman Gadudow, was killed in a mortar shelling of Mogadishu's Bakara market by Ethiopian troops.

“I have no good friend like Muruq now. I am desperate. May God bless my friend Muruq, he was a good friend,” Madey murmurs, tears streaming down his face.

The Ethiopian occupation and shell-shocked soul of Mogadishu, along with massive poverty and rampant devaluation of the Somali shilling have caused tens of thousands of children to live dangerously.

Clutching a glue bag in his right hand, Madey says he likes to sniff it for pleasure. Told that such habits are harmful, he responds that he did not know the practice was unhealthy.

Madey also collects the remains of the khat (a mild stimulant plant chewed for pleasure) at the teashop and hawks them, along with packets of cigarettes he buys to make some additional profit.

The main concern of Madey and his fellow shoe shiners are bullying and robbery at the hands of older street children armed with knives and the occasional firearm.

Living in one of Mogadishu's most dangerous neighborhoods, another shoe shiner, Muse Ahmed, lives rather differently from Madey. Muse relates that he is often able to wash and find a place to sleep.

His mother and father live in Mogadishu, but he is the sole source of income for his family since his mother is blind and his father is unemployed.

“My parents pray for my safety every morning before I leave home,” says the seven-year-old boy.

Muse says that he earns between 7,000 and 10,000 Somali shillings daily and gives all of the money to his parents, so that they can buy food for the family.

Wearing a soiled and torn black T-shirt and a shredded pair of pants, Muse smiles and says that, God willing, he hopes to be a rich man in the future.

“I hope to become a famous businessman with many houses and children,” the eager youth tells The Media Line.

Recently, young women have also joined the ranks of the shoe shiners for a chance to scrape out the meager wages necessary to stay alive.

Fatima Barre, 12, says her mother was killed in crossfire between Islamist insurgents and Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu. Her father and three brothers fled to the Bay region after heavy battles intensified in the city, but unfortunately she was not around when they fled, and works as a shoe shiner to try to make a living.

“I get some money from the shoe cleaning but miss my old life; I get extremely scared when gunfire erupts,” Barre says, deftly carrying a bag with shoe shining equipment.

A neighboring family took Barre in after her father and siblings fled, but sometimes she is forced to sleep outdoors under the walls when battles start or roadblocks are set up.

“I am able to feed myself with the money I earn from shoe shining,” she says.

Barre and the other female shoe shiners are especially prone to violent acts such as rape and assault.

Every child shoe shiner has a unique story to impart, and many speak of sleepless nights trapped between warring combatants.

Nobody protects the street children from predators.

Street children have collectively been denied many opportunities for education and they are working in a city where there has been fighting for more than 18 years. Many of the youth are under 18 and say recent times are the worst in Somalia's history. Most adults don't disagree.

“I don't know when I will be killed, but this line of work is so dangerous death is unavoidable,” says another street child, Qasim Nure, who has twice been wounded in fighting.

Both of Nure's parents died in heavy shelling in Mogadishu, and his five brothers and sisters fled to different places throughout Somalia; he has not been in contact with them since his parents' deaths.

“Somehow, I am still alive, but I have no information about the rest of my family, Allah save us all, each of my brothers and sisters,” the 10-year-old boy tells The Media Line, as he sits near an abandoned building, where he sleeps.

A large number of street children who have been working near areas where skirmishes have broken out have been arrested and tortured by TFG troops, who frequently battle with Islamist insurgents in the war-wracked coastal city.

One of youngest street children, Abdi Yare Haji, was killed in a bomb blast earlier this year in Baidoa town when he traveled there to visit his parents. He died instantly, blown apart by a hand grenade that ricocheted off the wall of a bank frequented by transitional government officials.

Some of the children have fled from the capital to IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps, but they couldn't remain there because of lack of employment. They were forced to return to Mogadishu, one of the most violent cities in the world, a city that has experienced sickening violence and extreme poverty for at least 18 years. The only break in violence was the six months that the ICU (Islamic Courts Union) ruled the city.

Educationalists are warning of the dire situation of these children, a population that has missed the basics of life.

“They have been suffering too long; no one cares for them, and if they continue with this harsh life, they are vulnerable to diseases including skin infections and TB,” says Dr. Ibrahim Dasuqi. “I have seen the bodies of many killed during the constant battles in Mogadishu.”

Nobody knows exactly how many children are living on Mogadishu's streets, and few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are working with them. No social service or child-protection agencies are in place to help them locate their families or assist them with family reintegration.

These children, who sleep on the steps of buildings or in abandoned market stalls, are the fallout from the 18-year civil war that has split their country apart. Many of them can barely remember the families they were torn from by the violence that engulfed their villages, forcing them to run and to recreate themselves in the vestiges of a broken city and battered country.

The children fled their homes for a wide variety of reasons.

“My father was thrashing me at home – whenever I made a mistake he would fiercely beat me. After I realized that this pattern could not continue and there was nobody to care for me