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 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.
Human Rights Watch says child soldiers are fighting in at least 14 other countries worldwide. Mali, however, was a stable democracy until this year’s coup and experts say the recruitment and religious indoctrination of child soldiers here marks a new and ominous development.
Child soldiers are being used by all the armed groups operating in northern Mali, but the Islamists, including a militant group known as Ansar Dine, have been among the most prominent recruiters, according to residents and human rights groups.
Back at the bus stop, Salif, the 16-year-old offered money, said several of his friends have joined the Islamists, and some are working as security guards for them.
But Salif turned down the offer. He now lives outside rebel territory in Mopti, and is already hoping that one day the rebels will leave. “My parents would not want me taking part in something like that,” he said. “And I’m not brave enough to shoot anybody.”