DADAAB, Kenya – The recruits assembled by moonlight at a watering hole. Hundreds of boys and young Kenyan men were herded onto trucks, which were covered with heavy canvas, and driven through the night.
It was so hot inside they could hardly breathe. One recruit, Salad Dahir, said they banged the sides of the truck for water but got none. Some had to urinate where they stood.
Their destination: a secluded training camp deep in the Kenyan bush.
Thousands of people, including children, are being secretly recruited and trained inside Kenya to battle Islamic insurgents in neighboring Somalia, according to deserters, local officials, families of recruits and diplomats. Most recruits are Somalis living in crowded refugee camps and Kenyan nationals who are ethnic Somalis living nearby.
Spokesmen from the Kenyan government, police and military, as well as the Somali chief of military staff, have denied that the government is recruiting fighters within Kenya. But interviews showed that recruiting has been taking place for months and that different government agencies and military resources — including vehicles with government license plates — have been involved.
A U.N. official says there have been rumors but no hard evidence of recruitment in refugee camps, which would violate the rights of the refugees.
Eight diplomats, citing internal reports and other sources, told The Associated Press that the recruits are being trained for a planned offensive on behalf of Somalia's weak, U.N.-backed government to wrest control of parts of southern Somalia from the insurgents. The diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity to prevent damaging relations with Kenya over the sensitive subject. Two of the diplomats said the offensive is planned for the end of Somalia's rainy season around the end of the year.
Kenya has long feared that the conflict in Somalia, which has been bloodied by civil war since warlords overthrew dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991, will spill across the border into its own neglected northeastern region. The area is home to hundreds of thousands of ethnically Somali Kenyans.
Thousands of would-be fighters, some as young as 11, have been lured into the militia by promises of up to $600 a month, but many fled after they were not paid, were beaten or went hungry, more than a dozen of the deserters told the AP. Many recruits remain in the ranks and see the secret militia as their only way out of overcrowded refugee camps and the dusty, poor towns around them.
Chris Albin-Lackey, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who has interviewed recruits and their families, said: "Refugees are supposed to find safety in the camps, not a government that is trying to trick their sons into going back to fight in Somalia."
Albin-Lackey noted the recruitment of children violates the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Kenya is a signatory.
Kenya is eager to counter the influence of insurgents in Somalia who preach the spread of a pan-Islamic state into Kenya and Ethiopia, where many Somalis live due to borders drawn by former colonial powers. Somalia's al-Shabab insurgents — some of whom have ties to Al Qaeda — already cross into northern Kenya.
About two months ago, recruiters started openly operating in Kenyan towns and in nearby huts and tents of the refugee camps, according to more than 20 interviews with recruits, their families and religious, municipal and civil society leaders. Some recruiters even worked from a hotel fronting a heavily fortified U.N. compound in the northern town of Dadaab, home to three overcrowded camps of about 275,000 refugees, most from Somalia.
Baijo Mohamed, chairman of a youth group in Dadaab's Ifo camp, said he had been approached by two Somali generals to help recruit fighters but refused because he did not want to see his friends die in a war they are not responsible for.
More than a dozen deserters said they were promised positions in the Kenyan or Somali armies or jobs with U.N. security by men acting as recruiters. Some said they were told they would patrol the Kenya-Somalia border. But upon arrival at the training camp, they were told they were going to Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, or Kismayo, a key southern city under Islamist control.
Some recruits said they would never have joined if they had known they were supposed to be fighting in Somalia, a sun-scorched nation that has not seen peace in a generation.
Kenyan Defense Ministry spokesman Bogita Ongeri denied a secret militia is being formed or that the military was involved in any recruitment or training. Contradictory evidence was the result of propaganda by Somali Islamists, he said, adding that the only training taking place is Kenyan police training Somali police.
"The military is not involved at all in any training of any Somali forces," he said. "This is propaganda being disseminated by some militia groups in Somalia."
Police spokesman Eric Kiraithe said he is not aware of any such police training by Kenya. Alejandro Bendana, the manager for the U.N. program training Somali police, also said he knew of no such U.N.-related training in Kenya. The main training area for police recruits is in the northern Somali region of Puntland, Bendana said.
Ismail Garat, the deputy mayor of the northern town of Garissa, about 60 miles from Dadaab, said he has received many complaints from constituents about the recruitment for the secret militia.
"They recruited retired Kenyan army officers first," Garat said. "Then they came back and began to take the youth."
Garat estimated at least 300 young men disappeared from the town into the militia. Garat's brother was among those approached and the deputy mayor had to persuade him to return.
Hussein Mahad, the secretary of the Council of Imams and Preachers for the town, said all 100 of the imams in his group have reported complaints about the recruitment drive. He said he knew of a woman whose husband, a retired Kenyan soldier, had joined early in the process and whose son was taken later.
Garat said trucks from the Kenya National Youth Service with government license plates took away the recruits from Garissa at night. Witnesses told him military escorts were sometimes present. Most of the recruits from Dadaab said they were also transported on trucks with government plates.
The deserters all said they were taken to Manyani, a training center for the Kenya Wildlife Service outside the port of Mombasa. They said their cell phones were confiscated upon arrival and Kenyan citizens had to surrender their identity cards.
Kenyans of Somali descent can easily pass for Somalis. They share with Somali nationals the Islamic religion, a common language — Somali — and a tall, slender appearance, looking distinct from members of other ethnic groups from farther south.
"They said, 'You are not a Kenyan. From this moment, tell yourselves and other people you are Somali,"' recalled 18-year-old Kenyan citizen Aden Hassan, who said he made the journey with 400 other men and was told to surrender his ID card.
Both Somali and Kenyan military officials were involved in the training, the recruits said, adding that they recognized Kenya's green military uniform and beret on some trainers while others wore plain clothes.
Salad Dahir, a tall, thin man in a tattered blue shirt, said he had traveled to the training site in the crowded, sweltering truck about a month ago. He said the Kenyan military did the training — push-ups and other calisthenics.
"Kenya military were there wearing uniforms," added Hassan.
The refugees who were interviewed asked that their last names be withheld to avoid losing their refugee status.
Salad Dahir, 26, said he deserted after a severe beating at the training site left him unconscious.
Tiny rations of dirty food, beatings and failure to pay promised salaries caused widespread desertion, recruits said. Some who tried to flee were caught and beaten, but many managed to return home through Tsavo, a vast national park filled with dangerous animals that surrounds the training camp.
At least one boy who fled at night with a group of nine others was attacked and killed by lions, Salad Dahir said. Garat, the deputy mayor, said another group of deserters was chased by elephants.
Some recruits called their families on phones smuggled into the camp and whispered tearful pleas for help.
"He was crying and his father was crying and then the phone cut," said Suban Abdi, a Kenyan woman whose 20-year-old son Aden Nor was recruited.
"We don't want them to go back and face the bullets that we fled," said Fatuma Mohamed, a 39-year-old Somali who kept a tight grip on her teenage son during an interview. Mohamed's younger brother has already joined.
Khadija Rageh Abdi, a Kenyan whose son was approached, is an advocate for the rights of refugee women and a favorite with visiting diplomatic delegations, but said she cannot get inside the U.N. compound to complain about the recruitments.
Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, a Geneva-based spokeswoman for the U.N.'s refugee agency, said it has no evidence recruitment is taking place in the camps, although it put up signs saying only civilians are allowed in after mothers complained their sons were missing.
"If it's happening, it's clearly a violation of the refugee's rights because nobody's supposed to recruit refugees," she said.
She said the agency had heard rumors of recruitment, but "we need facts."
"Sometimes refugee women say 'My son is no longer here,' but maybe the son is in Nairobi because some of them do go to Nairobi, but we have no evidence," she said.
Several recruits said they know of dozens of minors in the militia, and one spoke of a boy as young as 11.
"The recruiters said, 'Even if you're 15, you're still old enough to handle a gun,"' said 16-year-old Ahmed Omar, one of four minors who deserted.
Northern Kenya legislator Adan Keynan, chairman of Kenya's Defense and Foreign Relations parliamentary committee, said parliament has opened an investigation into the recruitment allegations. He declined to comment on the inquiry but said several politicians have complained of the recruiting drive.
Gen. Yusuf Ahmed Dhumal, chief of staff of Somalia's military, denied recruitment is taking place in Kenya. He said Kenya is training 1,500 Somalis recruited in Somalia as soldiers to support the Somali government. Training is also taking place in Ethiopia and Djibouti with U.S. support, he said.
One diplomat said sustainable training is urgently needed to help the beleaguered Somali government against the hard-line Islamists.
Somalia is now on its 15th government in 19 years.
"The problems of Somalia are older than my son," said Halima Aden, whose 18-year-old was taken from their hometown of Garissa. "If all the people who are working on Somalia cannot bring peace there, I do not see how my boy can help."