Many parents across the country are demanding the government to reveal the whereabouts of their missing sons, who they believe were forcibly sent to fight in the Tigray conflict.
GALKAYO, Somalia - Early last year, Aswad Mohamed’s son, Raage*, 18, and his friends were playing football when some men approached them and asked if they wanted to go to Europe without paying money.
“You will first be taken to Turkey for education and then you can escape to Europe with no trouble,” the men promised.
The following day, Raage left the house without informing his mother. “I thought he went to school but when I returned from work in the evening, he was nowhere to be found,” said Mohamed.
The following morning, news of army recruitment by the government spread in the town quickly. Mohamed joined other parents who were also looking for their missing sons. They rushed to Dhusamareeb, the administrative city of Galmudug state. But it was too late, her son was among dozens of youth who were transferred to Mogadishu.
A few days later, Raage called his mother from the capital to say goodbye and told her about the “opportunity” he was given. “There is no way I could stop him, he was put in a highly guarded location and was not allowed to go outside,” she said. “The men who lied to him in the football pitch were government officials”.
After seven months of silence, he called her again, this time - much to her shock - from a hospital bed in Eritrea where he was admitted for an injury sustained during training in a camp.
“I was heartbroken,” she said. “He told me that his injury was not life- threatening. I was extremely worried for him. He called me from a doctor’s phone and I haven’t heard from him since then”.
In the past two years, the federal government has been ramping up enlisting young recruits as part of its national strategy to build a strong Somali army, which they hope would fully take over the security of the country from the African Union Forces (AMISOM).
A double tragedy
In the central town of Baladweyne, single father Geedi* has been looking for his three sons aged 25, 20 and 18 for almost two years. “They were told they would be trained in Qatar and would return to serve in the national army with a good salary,” he said. “Instead, two of them called me from Eritrea in November last year, the whereabouts of their brother is still unknown. They said they finished the training and were preparing to return to Somalia but I haven’t heard from them since then”.
In early January, reports emerged of hundreds of Somali soldiers who were allegedly killed in the Tigray conflict. This triggered many parents to take to the streets in several cities, demanding the government to reveal the whereabouts of their missing sons.
“It is a double tragedy,” said Geedi. “Your loved ones killed in a war they have nothing to do with and you cannot find their bodies to bury them, is like dying twice. No official has contacted us yet. The only hope we have now is God”.
Both Ethiopia and Somalia refuted the claims that Somali forces were involved in fighting in Tigray. Speaking on the state-run national television, Somali Information Minister Osman Dubbe dismissed the reports as “fabricated” but did not deny that Somali forces are being trained in Eritrea.
However, Somalia’s former deputy director of the National Security and Intelligence Agency, Abdisalam Guled, argues that hundreds of Somali troops were killed in the Tigray war.
“According to sources in Ethiopia, Somali soldiers were fighting alongside Eritreans,” he said. “The casualty is still not clear but I was told 370 on record and many more wounded. The soldiers were not Somalis in Ethiopia, they were Somalis who were taken from Somalia to training in Eritrea, some of them were there for almost a year and a half”.
In Mogadishu, Fadumo Yusuf’s son, 18, has been missing for sixteen months. He had finished high school and was dreaming of entering university when he was “tricked into a scholarship” opportunity in Qatar.
“He came to me one day and said the government is offering an opportunity to train for two years in Qatar and would be paid salary,” she said. “He was excited and wanted to use the money to pay for his university when he returns. I asked him to take me to the government office that is facilitating the scholarship but he kept me in the dark and disappeared”.
On March 23, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for the first time confirmed troops from neighbouring Eritrea entered the war-torn northern region of Tigray.
The Somali government did not respond to requests for comment.
While there is no evidence of Somali soldiers’ direct involvement in the Ethiopian conflict, a lot of questions are being asked about the legality and procedure used to recruit them in the first place and why the government is not responding to the cries of those distraught mothers.
“The news about the forces being trained in Eritrea has been circulating since early 2020,” said Dr Afyare A. Elmi, Associate Professor of Security Studies, Qatar University. “The government has decided to be silent about the matter”.
The reason, Elmi said, is that it will have to answer policy questions to its external and domestic security partners.
For instance, he added: "What is the logic of adding Eritrea to the security actors in Somalia? How were the trainees recruited? Will these be legally constrained forces? There is a trust deficit among political actors and security issues must be handled sensitively”.
[NOTE: *Names were changed to protect the identity of interviewees]