MOGADISHU, Somalia — The former al-Shabab foot soldiers assigned to a drab cement housing bloc are young – too young. One is only 9, yet they were enforcers of harsh edicts from Islamist militants who are preventing thousands of Somalis from escaping famine.
The Associated Press obtained rare access to the former fighters at a government rehabilitation facility in Mogadishu, providing a unique view into the workings of the al-Qaida-linked group whose presence in much of Somalia is stymieing international efforts to provide emergency aid. Millions risk starvation amid Somalia's worst drought in 60 years.
The U.N. declared three new regions in Somalia famine zones on Wednesday and said the crisis is likely to spread across all of southern Somalia in coming weeks. Getting aid to the country has been difficult because al-Shabab controls much of the most desperate areas.
The hardline militant group routinely recruits young teenagers, kidnapping them from schools and forcibly removing them from homes. Last week, three teenage fighters surrendered to the African Union military force during a military offensive.
The most recent arrival at the rehab center, 17-year-old Abshir Mohammed Abdi, said "there was no life, no prospects" inside al-Shabab, which he belonged to for 1 1/2 years before escaping to the camp last week. Abdi is from the country's south – Kismayo – where Somalia's famine is hitting hardest.
Abdi said many there are suffering, with al-Shabab fighters trying to stop the flow of refugees toward food, an exodus that threatens to diminish the population from which al-Shabab draws conscripts and collects taxes. Al-Shabab has denied a famine is taking place.
"Even with women and children suffering from drought, al-Shabab would stop them, stop them, stop them until they couldn't stop them anymore," Abdi said last week, suggesting the wave of famine refugees was too much for the militants to stanch.
Somalis who have fled the famine zones and reached Mogadishu told the AP that militants are threatening refugees who leave the south and often stopping – and sometimes killing – the men, leading to a disproportionate number of women and children in camps in the capital. One of the young former fighters, who spoke to AP through an interpreter while standing under a shade tree at the rehabilitation facility, said al-Shabab also uses threats to keep men within the famine zones.
"What they would tell the men is that your women and children would be killed if you leave," said Ali Hassan, who like many of the former teen fighters wore a colorful track suit that looked like it was made by Nike but instead said "Nile Sports."
The two dozen young men, mostly teens, said there were killers among them, though no one dared specify who. One bearded fighter in his 20s suggested that he had carried out beheadings.
The former al-Shabab members were strikingly young. The youngest at the center is Liban Mohammed, a shy boy of 9. Al-Shabab used him as a spy.
Most children recruited by armed groups in Somalia appear to be between 12 and 18, though some are as young as 8, Amnesty International said in a report just last month. Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 is a war crime, the group noted.
"This is a never-ending conflict, where children are experiencing unimaginable horrors on a daily basis," Amnesty's Michelle Kagari said. "They risk becoming a lost generation if the world continues to ignore the war crimes affecting so many of them."
The children, who come from a desperately poor region where the government cannot function, are lured to al-Shabab by promises of phones and money. Forcible recruitment and kidnapping are common. The government also stands accused of using child soldiers.
One official who is helping watch after the former child soldiers said executions were a part of al-Shabab's recruitment process, in order to instill fear. Many youths saw friends die, he said.
"What they were promised was riches, and as the drought kicked in they were given handfuls of rice as payment," said the man, who did not give his name.
There are more than 160 former al-Shabab fighters in the government rehabilitation program. Many here say they hope to get an education, though some, knowing little but war, profess that they want to join Somalia's military and fight al-Shabab.
Hassan said he has fought alongside Arab militants and fighters from Kenya, and that he had seen Omar Hammami, an American al-Shabab leader known as Abu Mansur al-Amriki. Hassan and many of the other teens said al-Shabab treats their youngest soldiers poorly.
"We don't matter. We're taught how to load and unload a gun. I want a future for myself," Hassan said, explaining why he left.
Al-Shabab is split into about three main factions, the former fighters said. One top leader, often referred to as al-Shabab's No. 2, is Sheik Mukhtar Robow, who is seen by the international community as more moderate, a man aid groups have been able to work with in the past.
A leader like Robow could help aid groups banned from southern Somalia find a way in to distribute food. But one former fighter, 24-year-old Abdullahi Dahir, said aid groups shouldn't trust Robow's word, even if he tells them that they can enter.
The teens seem content at the government-run facility, if not a little bored. There is little for them to do and rehabilitation programs are not up to full speed, despite the program being more than six months old.
Government spokesman Abdirahman Omar Osman said more than 50 al-Shabab fighters have defected and joined government forces since the drought began. He said the government needs more money for the program.
For the former fighters, once they're in, it is their only way forward. Marked men – or boys, in many cases – they must stay in government-controlled territory.
"If I walk out of here I'll be killed," said one former fighter who didn't give his name. "Where can I go?"