Resocializing Somali fighters

The Baltimore Sun

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Beginning as a teenager, militiaman Abduallahi Mohammed Nur rarely ventured into the Mogadishu streets without an AK-47, which he often used to harass civilians and extort money at checkpoints.

But the 27-year-old hasn't held his weapon since June, when it was pointed at invading fighters from the Islamic Courts Union. The militia, now known as the Conservative Council of Islamic Courts, drove away the warlord he worked for and confiscated his gun.

Now Nur calls himself a reformed man. Under the watchful eye of Islamist commanders, Nur says he prays five times a day, studies the Quran and is learning to defend Somalia against foreign threats.

"Most of all," he said, "they are teaching me how to be good to other people."

Nur is one of about 3,000 former warlord militiamen sent to Islamist-run "rehabilitation camps" on the outskirts of the nation's capital. It's an ambitious resocialization program designed to wean the young fighters off drugs, instill religious values and, eventually, reverse loyalties so they can be integrated into the Muslim fundamentalist forces.

"It's a difficult job," said Mohammed Ibrahim Bilal, chairman of one of the new Islamic courts in Mogadishu. "We want to welcome them back. But they have been living with violence for 16 years."

In Washington, there are worries that increasingly Islamist Somalia could end up with a Taliban-style government and serve as a staging ground for terrorist training.

Amid allegations that Islamists are using military advisers from Pakistan and Afghanistan to train soldiers, officials recently began permitting journalists to visit the camps. But they declined access to weapons stockpiles and insisted on selecting which militiamen could be interviewed, carefully monitoring what they said.

About 12 miles north of the capital is the largest of the camps, called Hilwayne, a Somali national army base before the collapse of Mohamed Siad Barre's regime in 1991. After that, rival warlords carved up the Horn of Africa country and largely held sway until an alliance of local religious courts seized control of Mogadishu in June.

The Islamist forces that took the barren compound have cleaned up the trash, built tin barracks and a makeshift mosque, and use the facility to stockpile weapons and retrain about 700 defeated militiamen.

On a recent afternoon, the mood was largely casual and relaxed, with former fighters milling around in the shade. Security and the atmosphere appeared more reminiscent of a drug rehab facility or a tough-love teen reform school rather than a Soviet- or Cambodian-style re-education camp.

Guarded by a handful of armed Islamist soldiers, the men start their day at 4:30 a.m. with prayers. Attendance is voluntary, camp leaders say, but they take note of those who don't show up. Smoking cigarettes or chewing the leafy stimulant khat is banned, a challenge since most fighters were addicted to khat.

The rest of the day is filled with military exercises, religious lectures and self-defense classes, though the fighters don't practice with real weapons.

Religion permeates the camp program. Islamic guards kneel and pray with rifles slung over their shoulders. Trainees chant Islamic verse to keep time while marching in unison across plains.

Islamic leaders, however, insisted that religious indoctrination was not their goal.

"We are rehabilitating their behavior, not their religion," said Sheik Mukhtar Robow Ali, the deputy security chief for the courts. "Most of them were already religious, but they weren't using their faith. Religion doesn't permit you to oppress other people, and that's what these people were doing."

Camp leaders say participation is voluntary and the men are free to leave. But they admit that the camps provide an opportunity to keep an eye on the former enemy fighters.

After Islamists chased out the nearly dozen warlords who had divided control of Mogadishu this year, fighters left behind were given the option to hand in their weapons and return home, or move to the camps to be retrained.

In the face of pressure to prove they are "reformed," about half of the fighters agreed to go to the camps. Most were young, unemployed men who had been acting as mercenaries. Few had any education or job training that would enable them to find work.

During a recent pep talk to the former militiamen, most of them ages 18 to 30, Robow Ali promised that the Islamic courts would take care of their needs.

"The youth are the cornerstone of every country in the world," he said. "You are the youth of Somalia, and we urge you to join us."

Edmund Sanders writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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