Soccer Wars: The Battle for the Future of Somalia’s Children

Soccer goes to the core of war-ravaged Somalia’s battle for the future of its children.

Senior Al Shabab commander Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys this weekend fired a shot across the bow of the campaign of the Somali Football Federation (SFF) to lure child soldiers away from the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militia that controls large chunks of Somalia and its capital, Mogadishu.

“We recruit underage children to fight for us, the children are ready to die for their country and religion” Aweys said defiantly in a speech in a mosque in Elasha Biyaha, a camp for Somalis displaced by the Islamists’ war against the embattled US-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of Somalia on the outskirts of Mogadishu.

Aweys described the case of a 13-year old who although traumatized by the sound of artillery and frightened by the fighting declared before he died that Jihad is sweet.

The 13-year old’s death is what the SFF has set out to prevent by offering child-soldiers a career in soccer. The SFF’s campaign, backed by world soccer body FIFA, local businessmen and the Somali Youth League, independent Somalia’s first political party, throws down the gauntlet to jihadists who lure child soldiers into their ranks.

Mahad Mohamed was 11 when he joined an Islamist militia in war-ravaged Somalia.

By the time he was 14, he realized that doing a jihadist warlord’s bidding in a country savaged for two decades by civic strife and brutal militias wasn’t giving meaning to his life. When the opportunity arose, he swapped fighting for playing. He made his debut on Somalia’s Under-17 national team in December 2009. Since then, Mahad, a lanky, broad-shouldered teenager with a penetrating glaze in his eyes, has become the team’s captain and star defender. The youngest son of a construction worker, he dreams of being a soccer coach, a pilot and a computer teacher.

“People were afraid of me when I had an AK-47; now they love and congratulate me. I thank the football federation, they helped me,” he says, preferring to speak in several telephone interviews adequate English rather than Somali or Arabic. “I just drifted into being a soldier; I can’t say how it happened. Friends of mine became fighters and they told me that it was a good and exciting life. It was much better than doing nothing or hanging around on the street. Once I got involved, I realized that it wasn’t like that at all. I was happy to escape,” Mahad recalls. “It is difficult to be a soldier and football is much more interesting. You get paid for playing if you are a good. I don’t want to return to the life of a soldier,” he adds.

The opportunity to escape the militia presented itself after fighting for three years against government troops, rival jihadis, warlords, and African Union peacekeepers when the warlord he served as a bodyguard was killed. Mahad ran away and returned home to play soccer in a nearby open field. An SFF scout spotted him and offered him a chance to play on its youth team.

Mahad’s shift from boy killer to soccer star stands out in Somalia, a football-crazy country that straddles Africa’s strategic Gulf of Aden along which Al Qaeda-linked jihadists draconically impose an austere lifestyle. The US-backed head of Somalia’s transitional government is hanging on to power by the skin of his teeth. The jihadists have reduced its authority to a few blocks around his embattled presidential palace in the crumbling, battle-scarred capital of Mogadishu.

The jihadists, supporters of a fiercely puritan interpretation of Islam that makes Saudi Arabia seem liberal, banned soccer as satanic and un-Islamic while Mahad was still a fighter. They also outlawed music, movies, moustaches, bras and gold fillings. Theirs is a world in which men are forced to grow beards, women can't leave home without a male relative, limbs are chopped off as punishment, and executions by stoning are a form of public entertainment.

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the jihadist Harakat Al Shabab Al Mujahidin (Movement of the Martyr Youth) is a product of a failed foreign invasion that did little but exacerbate political, social and tribal fault lines. In 2006, US-backed Ethiopian forces ousted the hard-line Islamic Courts Union barely six months after they had driven the warlords out of Mogadishu on the eve of the 2006 World Cup in an alleged bid to restore law and order in Somalia.

The invasion destroyed Somalia’s chance for democratic government by Islamists eager to be part of the international community. Their brief rule defied perceptions of a militant Islamic governance that restricts individual freedoms and cruelly takes joy out of life.

Couples strolled at sunset along Mogadishu’s corniche enjoying the salty breeze from the sea. Girls attended school; boys played after school soccer on makeshift fields against the backdrop of a city scarred by 15 years of anarchy and civil war that in Western minds is associated with the downing of US Black Hawk helicopters and the brutal killing of 18 marines. Militant leaders canvassed for popular support by organizing a clean-up of the city, initiating a construction boom and building confidence by ensuring that police were attentive – a stark contrast to the terror wielded by the warlords they had defeated. “Judge us by our deeds,” the Courts’ foreign minister, Ibrahim Hassan Addo, said at the time, denying claims that his government had links to Al Qaeda.

To defend themselves against a US-backed coalition of warlords that sought to preserve their privileges and stymie the rise of more militant Islamists, the Courts, an alliance of Islamists, clan-based courts and businessmen, created in 2004 Al Shabab, a militia made up of young, bearded religious fighters who wore green skull caps. Their devotion and abstinence from tobacco and qat, a popular narcotic plant consumed on both sides of the Gulf of Aden, won them popularity.

The Ethiopian invasion, like the US effort a decade earlier recounted in Ridley Scott’s war movie Black Hawk Down, failed to restore stability to Somalia and instead sparked the emergence of even more radical forces and a cycle of ever more vicious violence. Al Shabab, radicalized by the West’s refusal to give the Courts the benefit of the doubt, emerged as the country’s most powerful militia. One of its first decrees was to ban the watching of World Cup matches. Some 21,000 people have been killed since the invasion in Islamist resistance first against the Ethiopians and then against US-backed forces of the transitional government and African Union peacekeepers; another 1.8 million have fled their homes to become refugees.

The campaign against soccer has been an Al Shabab theme ever since. An Islamist suicide bomber last month killed a star international on war-torn Somalia’s U-20 soccer team and wounded two other players. The attack constituted a setback for the squad as well as the SFF’s efforts to lure child soldiers away from the Islamist militia. Thousands signed a book of condolence that was opened at the SFF's headquarters in Mogadishu.

Mahad exemplifies the serious challenge soccer poses to the jihadists’ dire worldview. The scout who discovered him was on no ordinary recruitment drive. His slogan was ‘Put down the gun, pick up the ball.” Says Moyhaddin Abokar, one of the driving forces behind the campaign: "However difficult our situation is, we believe football can play a major role in helping peace and stability prevail in our country, and that is what our federation has long been striving to attain. Football is here to stay, not only as a game to be played but as a catalyst for peace and harmony in society."

Mahad is one of hundreds the association assisted in swapping jihad for soccer, the only institution that competes with radical Islam short of mass anti-government protests in offering youth in authoritarian Middle Eastern and North African states a prospect of a better life. "If we keep the young generation for football, al-Shabab can't recruit them to fight. This is really why al-Shabab fights with us," says Somali soccer association head Abdulghani Sayeed. To shield himself from threats by Al Shabab, Sayeed operates from a heavily guarded Mogadishu hotel.

He refuses to move the association’s headquarters out of Mogadishu’s Al-Shabab-controlled Suuqa Bakaaraha which would give the jihadists further reason to depict soccer and its institutions as US and Western imports. An open air market in the heart of the city, Suuqa Bakaaraha is famous for its trade in arms and false documents and as the crash site of one of two downed US Black Hawk helicopter in the 1993 Battle for Mogadishu. Shoppers fire weapons in the air to test them in a part of the market dubbed Sky Shooter. A short distance away, they test anti-aircraft guns and mortars. Somalis are one of the world’s most heavily armed populations. Aid agencies estimate that two thirds of Mogadishu’s 1.5 million inhabitants own an assault rifle.

In the epic match between soccer and Islam, Somalia is the pitch and battle-hardened kids like Mahad the ball. Players and enthusiasts risk execution, arrest and torture. Militants in their trademark green jumpsuits and chequered scarves drive through towns in southern Somalia in Toyota pickup trucks mounted with megaphones. Families are threatened with punishment if their children fail to enlist as fighters. Boys are plucked from makeshift soccer fields. Childless families are ordered to pay al-Shabab $50 a month, the equivalent of Somalia's monthly per capita income. Local soccer club owners are detained and tortured on charges of misguiding youth. "I don't go anywhere. I just stay at home with my family so that the Shabab don’t catch me,” says Mahad who runs a double risk as a teenager and a deserter.

Sheikh Mohamed Abdi Aros, a militant cleric who doubles as head of operations of Hizbul Islam, an Islamist militia that recently merged with Al Shabab, condemns soccer as “a waste of money and time” and “an inheritance from the primitive infidels.” His campaign reaches a crescendo every four years during the World Cup – a moment when most of the world is glued to the television and much of Somalia risks public flogging and execution to catch a glimpse of the game. To Sheikh Mohammed whose fellow warlords were soccer’s most powerful supporters and who provided security at local matches before they lost control of Somalia to the Islamists, the World Cup is the equivalent of Karl Marx’s opium for the masses. In his mind, soccer diverts the Muslim faithful from jihad; the World Cup offers the youth a stark reminder that watching games and waging battles on the pitch is a heck of lot more fun than the austere life of a fighter who defies death in street battles.

To mark the kick-off of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Sheikh Mohammed cautioned "all Somali youth not to dare watch these World Cup matches… They will not benefit anything or get any experience by watching semi-nude madmen jumping up and down and chasing an inflated object... we can never accept people to watch it.” During the match between Germany and Australia, Sheikh Mohammed’s fighters raided a private home in the town of Afgoye, twenty kilometers south of Mogadishu. Tens of soccer fans cluttered in the house around one of the country’s relatively few satellite TVs. To avoid drawing attention, they watched the game with the volume turned off, one eye on the game, the other on the door in case of a raid. Sheikh Mohammed’s fighters killed two in the raid and detained 30 others among them 14 teenagers.

Somalia’s multi-ethnic, multi-clan national team, The Ocean Stars, has never made it to a World Cup or even to the Africa Cup of Nations, the continent’s championships. FIFA has banned its members from playing in Somalia. Neighboring Djibouti is as much home to Mahad as is Mogadishu because it’s a safer training ground. Yet, Somalia - "the hardest place on earth right now" in the lyrics of Mogadishu-born Somali-Canadian poet and rapper Kna’an - was not totally absent from last year’s World Cup in South Africa. Kna’an performed his runaway hit, Wavin’ Flag – “Learn from these streets, it can be bleak, accept no defeat” – at the tournament’s opening ceremony concert. Coca Cola chose a remixed version as its anthem for the World Cup.

Players like Mahad raise the specter of a life beyond the sectarian fighting and boost Somali hopes that their team will eventually successfully compete in international competitions. Former child soldiers who exchange their AK-47s for soccer balls live and train for up to five years in SFF camps. National coach Mohamed Abdulle Farayare visits the camps once a month to identify the best players and take them under his wings. “We want more boys to play football. We check out a boy’s situation and target soldiers as well as those from poor backgrounds. Word spreads. They go home to tell their families and friends. This in turn inspires others,” Farayare says.

Mahad takes pride in flying the Somali flag at international matches and showing the world that there is more to his country than wild-eyed fanatics, suicide bombers and pirates. Soccer allows him to briefly forget the tragedies that dominate life beyond the pitch. His soccer earnings went as 2010 made way for 2011 to pay medical bills for his older brother Said shot in crossfire between Al Shabab and government forces. Mahad pays each day $30 for his brother to be treated in an overcrowded hospital where most patients lie on the floor because of a lack of beds and doctors are unable to cope with the onslaught of young men with gunshot wounds, malnourished children and elderly men and women with malaria and cholera that in other world capitals are easily prevented and treated.

It doesn’t make Mahad’s transition from child solider to national star any smoother. “I lost everything when I was a fighter, I had nothing,” he says. Soccer training for Mahad and his fighter-turned-player team mates involves far more than just gearing up for the next match. Psychologists helped him transition back to a semblance of normal life in a country that is stumbling from bad to worse. “They have problems when they arrive, they are aggressive. We calm them down, it’s amazing how mentally strong they are,” Farayare says.

They are aided by the fact that the football association constitutes an island of relative normalcy. Buoyed by its success in wrenching some 400 child fighters from the clutches of the Islamists and placing them with Somali soccer clubs, the association upped the stakes in its battle with the militias. In the spring of 2010, it revived for the first time in three years the country’s football championships at a ceremony on the well-protected grounds of the Somali police academy in Mogadishu. It also launched a tournament for primary and secondary school students.

Colonel Ahmed Hassan Maalin, Mogadishu’s barrel-chested, thinly moustachioed, fatigues-clad police chief, whose embattled forces all but control the capital, committed hundreds of policemen to secure the tournaments. With the city’s stadium – once one of East Africa’s most impressive filled with 70,000 passionate fans during games – turned into an Islamist training and recruitment center, most of the matches are played on the academy’s grounds. Mahad’s squad practices for the tournament in ragged attire on a patch of earth on the base that is covered with mud, rocks and rusty cans, and has no goal posts.

The jihadists have responded to the SFF’s challenge with threats and violence. “If we kill you, we will get closer to God," they said in an email sent to the association in December 2009. Several days later, they sent a second mail. "This is the last warning for you to take the path of Islam. If you don't, you have no choice but to die. Do you think the non-believer police can guarantee your security?"


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