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 $30 a day for himself and $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 no longer can 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.
“We need to intervene rapidly to discourage these people,” said Amadou Bocar Teguete, the vice president of Mali’s national Human Rights Commission. “The children are innocent and don’t know what they are doing, and then they are transformed into criminals.”
Human Rights Watch says child soldiers are fighting in at least 14 other countries worldwide.