DW: What did you discover from your research about the scale of child abuse in Somalia?
Tirana Hassan: What we found was that the scale of forced recruitment and attacks on education were at levels that we have never seen before. Human Rights Watch has been documenting international humanitarian law violations in Somalia for the past 10 years, but never have we come across dozens, scores of children who are reportedly been plucked off the streets, from their playing grounds, from their class rooms, and being forced to fight with the al-Shabab insurgents.
On top of that, it's not just children being taken to fight, it's also education. Not only are al-Shabab actually using the schools as battle fields, launching attacks on the African Union and transitional federal government forces from school compounds, but they are also really invading school curriculum. They are imposing a harsh sort of interpretation of Islam and blocking subjects like English or social sciences, even biology, and reducing children's education to Arabic and religious education to virtually nothing.
Specifically, we saw a massive increase in the threat of recruitment and actual recruitment of children after the middle of 2010 which has continued right through until now. And the main reason for that was an intensity in the fighting. After what's commonly known as the Ramadan offensive, which was a very intense battle period last year in around August, al-Shabab obviously took a number of casualties and in a bid to try and build up their forces, they have been virtually plucking children from the streets.
We've also seen children who have lost their families, lost everything, who have approached the Transitional Federal Government and have been taken in. Some of them have served at check-points, some of them have just been taken into the compounds, but some of them have also served on the battle field.
So are you you saying that the al-Shabab rebels aren't the only ones that have been exploiting children?
Absolutely not. There are serious concerns also that there are children not only fighting with the Transitional Federal Government, but also the allied militia. We spoke to a boy just two weeks ago who had recently escaped from fighting on the front line with Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama - the militia allied to the Transitional Federal Government.
But it should be said that the Transitional Federal Government has tried to put in place some assessment scheme so that they are able to try and gauge the age of children. But these are not strong enough. There needs to be a lot more done so that they can suitably vet the age of recruits to ensure there are no children in their ranks.
How difficult is it for a child to grow up in Somalia?
Somalia is probably one of the most difficult places in the world to be a child. Just on education itself: Somalia has one of the lowest enrollment rates into education than any other country in the world. And then children are just living with the sheer danger.
When they leave their house, they don't know if they are coming back. When they go to school, they don't know if they are going to survive that day - whether they are recruited or whether their school may be hit by incoming mortar fire. We heard of children who just are struggling to find their education, to have a little bit of normalcy in their lives. And as they are sitting in their classrooms, al-Shabab have come in, taken over their school, kept them hostage, using them as human shields whilst they engage in ongoing battles with the African Union in Somalia (AMISOM) forces.
We hope by documenting what is happening to these children in Somalia right now that this will provoke some action. The international community can't talk about peace and development and the future of Somalia whilst this generation, the future generation of Somalia, is at such great peril. I mean this is the next generation of Somalis. If nothing is done to protect these children and to find constructive ways to get these children out of the fighting forces and really protect them, then this will be a travesty for the future.
On Thursday an international conference on the future of Somalia will begin in London. What does Human Rights Watch expect from the talks?
From what we've seen of the agenda we're slightly disappointed that human rights is not a priority on this agenda. And we would hope that the international actors who are gathering for this conference will make sure that human rights is underlining their discussion.
We need to make sure that the international actors understand the importance of actually documenting what is happening on the ground. And Human Rights Watch is calling on this meeting - the actors at this meeting - to support an increased monitoring mission with more human right monitors on the ground who can appear as independent witnesses to the abuses that are going on.
Interview: Chrispin Mawkideu /sst
Editor: Mark Caldwell / rm