Poverty drives children to work for armed groups

Eleven-year-old Seif Abdul-Rafiz and his two brothers were left with no choice but to leave school and work so as to help their unemployed parents make ends meet.

Unable to find a job, Seif resorted to making bombs for Sunni insurgents who are fighting US troops in Iraq.

“We work about eight hours a day and are supervised by two men. They give us food and at the end of the day we get paid for our work. Sometimes we get US $7 and sometimes we get $10, depending on how many bombs we make,” Abdul-Rafiz said.

“The bombs are used to fight American soldiers. I was really afraid in the beginning but then my parents told me that it was for two good causes: the first is to help our family eat; and the second is to fight occupation forces,” he added.

Thousands of poor children in Iraq are forced to work to help their families. Many of them work in one way or another for a variety of armed groups that operate in the war-torncountry.

“If I had choice, I would have preferred to be in a classroom but we need to eat. In the beginning, they were very kind with us but later they started to threaten us, saying that if we leave our work they would kill our family,” Abdul-Rafiz said.

According to NGO the Iraq Aid Association (IAA), reports from Anbar province and two mainly Sunni neighbourhoods of the capital show that children from poor families are helping insurgents make bombs.

''I was really afraid in the beginning but then my parents told me that it was for two good causes: the first is to help our family eat; and the second is to fight occupation forces.''

“They are in direct contact with dangerous chemicals which when wrongly handled can result in their death. We have secure information that at least three children have died making bombs,” Fatah Ahmed, IAA spokesman, said.

But Abdul-Rafiz said that hunger was worse than anything.

“My mother cries every day we go out to make bombs but my dad prays for us and tells us to go because he cannot find a job. And the insurgents don’t let him work with them because he was injured in an attack a year ago and they consider him useless,” he said.

No choice

Insurgents say children work faster, are cheaper to hire than adults and attract less attention from security forces.

“They need to work and we have jobs. We don’t force them to come but if they come, they should work hard. If they do their job well, they won’t suffer any harm,” said Abu Katib, who says he teaches more than 40 children in Baghdad how to make bombs.

“We’re near them all the time. They work in safe conditions and rarely get burned by the chemicals they work with. If that does happen, we have nurses and a doctor for them,” he added.

''The families are aware of what their children are doing so we cannot be blamed for something that even the children’s parents agree to.''

Abu Katib said that by giving poor children jobs, they would at least be helping their families to eat.

“The families are aware of what their children are doing so we cannot be blamed for something that even the children’s parents agree to,” the bomb-making instructor said.

Keeping Children Alive (KCA) president Ali Mussaw has called on the government and international organisations to intervene to save the lives of hundreds of children countrywide who work as bomb-makers and risk serious injury or death when handling dangerous chemicals.

“Someone should be able to help them. It’s disastrous. Their rights aren’t being recognised but the solution should be aimed at the roots of the problem,” Mussawi said.

Militia threat

Shi’a militants are also reportedly using children to make bombs.

“They [Shi’ite militants] came to our house asking for our two boys to work with them. We refused in the beginning but later we had to accept because they threatened to take away our two daughters if we disagreed,” said Bari’ah Hassan, 42, a mother of five from the Sadr City neighbourhood.

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and prostitution

“They know we don’t have money and my husband was killed months ago. I was forced to accept and each morning my children leave home to help them,” she added.

Bari’ah told IRIN that her children get US $3 per day of work. The job varies. Sometimes they clean guns; sometimes they carry explosives from one place to another while avoiding the police; and sometimes they cook for the militants, she said.

“I was scared in the beginning but now with my two boys working with them I have at least US $5 a day to buy food and can feed my daughters. I know that it is dangerous but unfortunately it is what the US troops have brought to us,” Bari’ah added.

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