Building An Army In Somalia, Teaching It To Fight

Since April, European Union soldiers have been training Somali recruits to fight Islamist insurgents trying to topple their country's beleaguered government. The trainers are finding that the soldiers -- whose salaries are paid by the U.S. -- have a lot to learn about warfare.

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Imagine trying to build an army to defend a state that barely exists.

That's what the European Union is trying to do for Somalia.

EU soldiers are spending a year training 2,000 Somali recruits in hopes of sending them to Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, to help fight off Islamist insurgents trying to topple the country's beleaguered government.

And the salaries for those soldiers are funded by the United States.

The training, which began in April, is being held on a remote military base in the rolling hills of southwestern Uganda. Classes include crowd control, target practice and urban warfare.

On a recent day, 1st Sgt. Paulo Gujao of the Portuguese army teaches Somali recruits how to fight in streets and abandoned buildings.

A student lies inside a small brick structure that stands in for the bombed-out Somali capital. He pokes the barrel of his AK-47 through a hole.

"Don't put the muzzle of your weapon outside the building," Gujao barks to the recruits, skinny young men whose olive fatigues hang on their shoulders. "Because when you shoot -- especially at night -- the enemy will see the flame ... and all of you in the room will die, OK?"

"Mafahantay?" Gujao asks in Somali. "Understand?"

"Yes," the recruits yell.

"Always be more smart than al-Shabab. Always," says Gujao, as another man translates his words into Somali.

Anarchic History Complicates Training

Al-Shabab is an Islamist militant group that controls most of south and central Somalia. In recent weeks, it has tried to destroy the country's weak, U.S.-backed government with a surge of suicide bombs and mortar fire.

Al-Shabab wants to turn Somalia into a strict Islamic state, and some of its members want to export violence to neighboring countries in East Africa, including allies of the U.S.

Gujao hopes his students can help derail those plans, but he says teaching the recruits has not been easy -- largely because of Somalia's anarchic history.

Civil war has engulfed Somalia for nearly two decades, and most schools have been closed for years.

"We have people here who can't read, so it's difficult," Gujao says during a break between classes. "But there's one good thing -- they want to learn. That's important."

Gujao adds: "If they don't understand my letter, I make a picture on the ground."

Other Surprises For Trainers

Reading, though, isn't the only problem.

Somalia fragments along complicated clan lines like an East African version of the Hatfields and the McCoys -- only on a larger, more lethal scale.

Trainers say that when recruits first arrived, clans hung together and members occasionally got into fistfights.

Col. Philippe Bouillard, the training mission's deputy commander, says the biggest surprise was the Somalis' fighting skills. For people who'd spent so much time at war, they weren't very good at it.

"The guys fighting before in Mogadishu use the weapons, no aiming, no nothing, and only to launch some bullets," says Bouillard.

In addition to the warfare classes, recruits took classes in Somali history and citizenship.

Trainers say they split up clans and got soldiers working together, and Gujao says they've improved over time.

"I know they are better than when they came here," he says. "Because when they came here, they couldn't pick up a gun. And now they know how to aim. They know how to use the weapon."

Competent Military Crucial To Country, Region

The European Union has a basic budget of $7 million to train the Somalis.

Next month, the recruits will return home and join thousands of Somali army soldiers, who are heavily supported by about 7,000 African Union troops.

Trainers say building a competent military is critical to Somalia's future -- and security in East Africa.

In July, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for two bombings in Uganda that killed more than 70 people.

Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye, spokesman for the Ugandan army, says if Somalia remains lawless, it will become a platform for international terrorism.

"And I want to assure you, you Americans are not safe from terrorism as long as Somalia provides them a safe haven," he says. "So it pays the Americans to spend on stabilizing Somalia."

The U.S. government seems to agree. It's providing $100 a month in salary to recruits in Somalia through the end of the year.

But getting money into the soldiers' pockets has been a problem.

Challenge Of Keeping Morale Up

Just ask Mohammed Arab Barre, who is in his 40s and who has fought as a part of the Somali army for seven years.

He says the government owes him a lot of money.

"After thee or four months, we get one month's pay," he says.

Other soldiers say they wait even longer.

Arab Barre says this kills morale. He says that during one training trip, soldiers deserted in droves.

"When we went to train in Ethiopia, we were 900," Arab Barre recalls. "After three months, we were down to 300."

"Some joined al-Shabab, because they hadn't been paid," Arab Barre adds. "Some went home, and some disappeared."

Arab Barre says some soldiers even sold their government-issued rifles to al-Shabab for $800 or $900 just to buy food.

The U.S. government is paying the salaries of some government army units through the accounting firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers to make sure American taxpayer dollars end up where they should.

American officials say part of the problem is the Somali government doesn't have enough money to pay the entire army regularly.

And soldiers suspect that someone in the government has been siphoning off their salaries.

Passing On New Skills

Arab Barre says the EU trainers taught him many new valuable skills, such as fighting in urban areas and how to set up roadblocks.

And he's excited to put them to use.

"I'll go back to Somalia and train other soldiers there," he says.

The EU trainers say that's the ultimate test -- not what recruits learn in Uganda, but whether they return to Somalia and use what they've learned to help their homeland. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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