Islamic militant groups recruit children to fight their holy war in West Africa. The children, who live in a world of extreme poverty and hunger, have little choice but to join. Once taken in by these extremist groups, they are trained to kill in the name of Islam. Often Christians are the victims of this "holy war" and up to 200,000 have fled Mali as these Islamic militant groups has grown in power. When will these groups be confronted for the human rights atrocities they have committed?
10/4/2012 Mali (ABCNews) - Salif Haidara sat drinking tea on the side of the road with other weary bus passengers when a man with a turban and a long beard approached them: Did they want to become holy warriors?
The skinny teen had left his poor hometown in the desert with only the yellow tank top, pants and plastic flip-flops he was wearing. Now Salif was being told he could earn 15,000 francs ($30) a day for himself and 200,000 francs ($400) a month for his family – an enormous sum for a boy who had just turned 16.
The car was waiting to take the recruits to a two-week-long training camp in Mali's vast desert, where they would learn how to fire weapons. But the man named Omar made one thing clear.
"Once you've taken the money and eaten, it's a done deal," recalled Salif, his troubled face still free of stubble after four days and nights on the bus. "You're there until you die or the war is over."
Across northern Mali, Islamists have plucked and paid for as many as 1,000 children from rural towns and villages devastated by poverty and hunger, The Associated Press has found in several dozen interviews with residents, human rights officials, four children or youths and an Islamist official. The AP also saw several other children with machine guns half their size strolling down the streets in Timbuktu, where Westerners can no longer go because of the threat of kidnapping.
The interviews shed new light on the recruitment practices of the Islamists, including first-hand accounts of how much money is being offered to poor youth and their families to join. They also provide evidence that a new generation in what was long a moderate Muslim nation is becoming radicalized, as the Islamists gather forces to fight a potential military intervention backed by the United Nations.
The U.N. children's agency said it has been able to corroborate at least 175 reported cases of child soldiers in northern Mali this year, with parents receiving between 500,000 francs (about $1,000) and 600,000 francs (about $1,200) per child. However, Mali's human rights commission branch in Timbuktu said some families have reportedly received as much as 1 million francs ($2,000). And the AP's interview with Salif suggests some families are promised quite a bit more at $4,800 a year, more than four times the average annual income per person in Mali.
Mali human rights officials also put the total number of children recruited by the Islamists considerably higher than U.N. estimates at 1,000, based on accounts from the major cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. Officials said at least 200 child soldiers are operating in Mali's fabled town of Timbuktu alone.
In the dusty and remote village of Goundam, dotted with mud homes, at least two children under 18 were inscripted into the Ansar Dine militant group back in August. The boys are no longer in contact with their parents, said the deputy mayor of the town of about 13,000 near Timbuktu.
The children stay at camps with the militants on the outskirts of towns. Sadou Diallo, the mayor of the town of Gao, said members of al-Qaida's North Africa branch, known as AQIM, are giving them military training and religious indoctrination.
One young Malian who underwent training at a camp run by Ansar Dine confirmed that his instructors were Algerian members of AQIM.