MOGADISHU, Somalia — Awil Salah Osman prowls the streets of this shattered city, looking like so many other boys, with ripped-up clothes, thin limbs and eyes eager for attention and affection.
But Awil is different in two notable ways: he is shouldering a fully automatic, fully loaded Kalashnikov assault rifle; and he is working for a military that is substantially armed and financed by the United States.
“You!” he shouts at a driver trying to sneak past his checkpoint, his cherubic face turning violently angry.
“You know what I’m doing here!” He shakes his gun menacingly. “Stop your car!”
The driver halts immediately. In Somalia, lives are lost quickly, and few want to take their chances with a moody 12-year-old.
It is well known that Somalia’s radical Islamist insurgents are plucking children off soccer fields and turning them into fighters. But Awil is not a rebel. He is working for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government, a critical piece of the American counterterrorism strategy in the Horn of Africa.
According to Somali human rights groups and United Nations officials, the Somali government, which relies on assistance from the West to survive, is fielding hundreds of children or more on the front lines, some as young as 9.
Child soldiers are deployed across the globe, but according to the United Nations, the Somali government is among the “most persistent violators” of sending children into war, finding itself on a list with notorious rebel groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Somali government officials concede that they have not done the proper vetting. Officials also revealed that the United States government was helping pay their soldiers, an arrangement American officials confirmed, raising the possibility that the wages for some of these child combatants may have come from American taxpayers.
United Nations officials say they have offered the Somali government specific plans to demobilize the children. But Somalia’s leaders, struggling for years to withstand the insurgents’ advances, have been paralyzed by bitter infighting and are so far unresponsive.
Several American officials also said that they were concerned about the use of child soldiers and that they were pushing their Somali counterparts to be more careful. But when asked how the American government could guarantee that American money was not being used to arm children, one of the officials said, “I don’t have a good answer for that.”
According to Unicef, only two countries have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the use of soldiers younger than 15: the United States and Somalia. The United States did ratify a later agreement, known as an optional protocol to the convention, aimed at preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
Many human rights groups find this unacceptable, and President Obama himself, when this issue was raised during his campaign, did not disagree.
“It is embarrassing to find ourselves in the company of Somalia, a lawless land,” he said.
All across this lawless land, smooth, hairless faces peek out from behind enormous guns. In blown-out buildings, children chamber bullets twice the size of their fingers. In neighborhoods by the sea, they run checkpoints and face down four-by-four trucks, though they can barely see over the hood.
Somali government officials admit that in the rush to build a standing army, they did not discriminate.
“I’ll be honest,” said a Somali government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the subject, “we were trying to find anyone who could carry a gun.”
Awil struggles to carry his. It weighs about 10 pounds. The strap digs into his bony shoulders, and he is constantly shifting it from one side to the other with a grimace.
Sometimes he gets a helping hand from his comrade Ahmed Hassan, who is 15. Ahmed said he was sent to Uganda more than two years ago for army training, when he was 12, though his claim could not be independently verified. American military advisers have been helping oversee the training of Somali government soldiers in Uganda.
“One of the things I learned,” Ahmed explained eagerly, “is how to kill with a knife.”
Children do not have many options in Somalia. After the government collapsed in 1991, an entire generation was let loose on the streets. Most children have never sat in a classroom or played in a park. Their bones have been stunted by conflict-induced famines, their psyches damaged by all the killings they have witnessed.
“What do I enjoy?” Awil asked. “I enjoy the gun.”
Like many other children here, the war has left him hard beyond his years. He loves cigarettes and is addicted to qat, a bitter leaf that, for the few hours he chews it each day, makes grim reality fade away.
He was abandoned by parents who fled to Yemen, he said, and joined a militia when he was about 7. He now lives with other government soldiers in a dive of a house littered with cigarette boxes and smelly clothes. Awil does not know exactly how old he is. His commander says he is around 12, but birth certificates are rare.
Awil gobbles down greasy rice with unwashed hands because he does not know where his next meal is coming from. He is paid about $1.50 a day, but only every now and then, like most soldiers. His bed is a fly-covered mattress that he shares with two other child soldiers, Ali Deeq, 10, and Abdulaziz, 13.
“He should be in school,” said Awil’s commander, Abdisalam Abdillahi. “But there is no school.”
Ali Sheikh Yassin, vice-chairman of Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Mogadishu, said that about 20 percent of government troops (thought to number 5,000 to 10,000) were children and that about 80 percent of the rebels were. The leading insurgent group, which has drawn increasingly close to Al Qaeda, is called the Shabab, which means youth in Arabic.
“These kids can be so easily brainwashed,” Mr. Ali said. “They don’t even have to be paid.”
One of the myriad dangers Awil faces is constant gunfire between his squad and another group of government soldiers from a different clan. The Somali government is racked by divisions from the prime minister’s office down to the street.
“I’ve lost hope,” said Sheik Yusuf Mohamed Siad, a defense minister who abruptly quit in the past week, like several other ministers. “All this international training, it’s just training soldiers for the Shabab,” he added, saying defections had increased.
“Go ask the president what he’s accomplished in the past year,” Sheik Yusuf said, laughing. “Absolutely nothing.”
Advisers to President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed say they have fine-tuned their plans for a coming offensive, making it more of a gradual military operation to slowly take the city back from the insurgents.
Awil is eager for action. His commanders say he has already proven himself fighting against the Shabab, who used to bully him in the market.
“That made me want to join the T.F.G.,” he said. “With them, I feel like I am amongst my brothers.”