Sevaré — Children as young as 14 are joining military training camps run by militias in southern Mali preparing to fight Islamist groups in the north. At the same time, Islamist groups in the north are recruiting children as young as 11 to man checkpoints, gather intelligence, search vehicles and patrol the streets in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, according to aid agencies and human rights groups.
Fatoumata Tall, a 16-year-old from Ségou in south-central Mali, had never held a rifle before coming to a militia training camp in Sevaré, in central Mali about 45km from the Islamist-held north.
After six months of rigorous training mainly from former soldiers in the Malian army, she is ready for battle, saying she cannot accept the occupation, or the Islamists imposing Sharia in her country.
"I am determined to fight... Our goal is to liberate the north. Whatever the price, we can't abandon our people," she told IRIN.
In Sevaré alone, hundreds of youths and children, many of them 14 or under, are living and training in run-down barracks or school-buildings. They spend hours each day learning how to use a gun, simulating hand-to-hand combat, and exercising.
Calling themselves the FLN, or the Liberation Front of the North, most are proud to be here and many have come without their parents' knowledge or approval. "It's my country and I'm doing whatever it takes to defend it," said Fatoumata Tall, explaining that her parents would force her to leave immediately if they knew where she was.
One camp holds 1,000 youths, another 400, according to militia trainer Col Ibrahima Outtara, though IRIN was unable to verify these figures.
The militia are short on arms and have to borrow guns from the Malian army for weapons-training, said leaders at FLN camp just outside of Mopti. The government promised food, equipment and funding but it never materialized, so trainers rely on handouts from the local population to get by.
None of the youths IRIN spoke to had eaten more than one meal of rice per day.
One of the drivers behind a military coup that ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré in March was the long-term neglect and marginalization of the Malian army, which needed more manpower, weaponry and better training to take on Islamists in the north. In what Reuters described as a "spectacular own goal" the political havoc in the south was a contributing factor to Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups taking control in the north.
Tall hopes to join the army when she "graduates" but Mohammad Maiga, a former soldier who directs one of the camps, said he knows recruits will not be accepted as they are under-age.
Mali is a party to the Convention of the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol, barring recruitment of children under 18.
Islamists recruiting children
Meanwhile, children are being recruited into Islamist militias in the north, where they have been seen manning checkpoints, conducting foot patrols, riding in patrol vehicles, guarding prisoners and enforcing Sharia law, according to human rights groups and aid agencies, including Human Rights Watch (HRW), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), Cri de Coeur, the Human Rights Commission in Mali, and Malian human rights group TEMEDT.
One witness described to HRW how children were being taught to gather intelligence by walking through town and later repeating what they had heard.
Many children are recruited through the Islamists' Koranic schools, said Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, director of TEMEDT. "First the children hear the ideology and later this becomes the driving force," he told IRIN.
Children armed with Kalashnikovs often man checkpoints, stopping and searching buses coming from the north and asking if any Malian army members are present, he noted.
In August 2012, UNICEF reported at least 175 boys aged 12-18 being associated with armed groups; other groups say over 1,000 children are estimated to be involved, some aged as young as 11.
Former Timbuktu resident Sankoum Sissoko told IRIN in Sevaré: "There is one camp on the outskirts of town [Timbuktu] where many children train... They carry guns and some of them are even taught how to shoot. Everyone knows about it but no one dares to speak up."
Paid to join
Many families said they had no choice but to let their children join Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) as they need the cash. Islamists pay about 75,000 CFA (US$150) per month, according to 16-year-old Adijatou Touré from Gao.
Sadou Diallo, once-mayor of Gao now exiled in the capital Bamako, said many families had little choice. "With no functioning government the Islamists are the main force. With no work and little means to support themselves parents let their children join the militia knowing they will be fed, but also for security," he said, noting it is parents rather than the children who are paid.
Some militia members in the south have even switched sides to join Islamist groups in the north, said Touré. "I can't blame them... Here [in the south] you hardly get fed," She will not abandon the militia's cause, she told IRIN. "My only fear is having to fight my friends."
The already fragile economy in the north and throughout much of Mali has been severely strained by the takeover by Islamist groups in the north. While an estimated 450,000 fled the region, many of those who stayed were too poor to leave (or were left to try to guard the assets and houses of those who left). Northern residents face crumbling livelihoods, food insecurity, unsually high malnutrition rates and deteriorating basic services.
The government, UN agencies and NGOs are calling on armed groups to stop child recruitment, stop using schools as military bases, and release all those children already recruited.
"Mali has fully implemented international laws to protect children rights, but with no government representation in the north we have no way of enforcing them," said Ousmane Touré, director at the Ministry for Promoting Women and Children in Bamako.
Recruitment of children under 15 is a war crime under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations