MOGADISHU, 14 April 2011 (IRIN) - There are a lot of boots to shine in heavily militarized Mogadishu, and a lot of boys to shine them, despite the risks of bombs, bullets and beatings.
Two decades of civil war in Somalia's capital have left many civilians, particularly the youth, without employment or viable alternative means of earning a livelihood.
Ahmed Dini, a civil society activist involved in children's welfare, told IRIN that exact figures were not available but estimated that "roughly between 4,000 and 4,500 children live on the streets of Mogadishu".
He said the numbers had been increasing in the past few years. "Some have lost their parents and others have been separated from families who fled the violence."
Halimo Ahmed*, an official of a women's business association in Mogadishu, told IRIN: "These children live under difficult situations while working in the streets. Sometimes, a child shining the shoes of soldier is caught up in conflict if rivals attack while the task is going on. In such situations, the children are [sometimes] killed accidentally.
"Two children were shot dead three months ago in K4 [a neighbourhood of southern Mogadishu] when the soldiers whose shoes they were shining were attacked by a militia group."
Fighting between government troops, backed by the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM), and opposition Islamist groups, continues in Mogadishu and other parts of the country and has caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Somalis.
Most of the children work as shoe-shiners in the southern part of Mogadishu, which is controlled by the Transitional Federal Government, or in the northern part controlled by opposition Islamist group, Al-Shabab.
Due to daily conflict in the city, Ahmed said, these children are often harassed or denied payment by their customers.
"Sometimes, soldiers promise the children khat [mild stimulant widely chewed in the country] for shining their shoes then they later refuse to hand over the khat; if the children insist on being paid, they could even be shot," Ahmed said.
Both military and civilian customers sometimes abuse the shoe-shiners.
Osman Ali*, 9, has been shining shoes in Mogadishu for two years. "I was born in the north of Mogadishu and I have been working as a shoe shiner for two years now because my father is taking care of my mother, who is too ill, leaving me as the main provider for my five younger brothers.
"Sometimes TFG soldiers ask us to shine their shoes but when we ask for payment, they threaten us or even beat us."
Abdi Omar, 14, told IRIN: "I remember one Wednesday a few weeks ago when two soldiers came to me and asked me to shine their shoes. When I completed shining their shoes, they complained that I had not done the job properly. They left without paying me. In such cases, I just ask Allah to give them a hard time."
Ali Abdi, 12, who works near Eil-gaab in the south, has not only been displaced several times, but survived a bomb attack.
"Initially, my family lived in Karan district [north]. One day, after I had left for work, war broke out in the area. When I returned home, my family had fled. I resorted to sleeping on the streets for about eight days. I later made my way to Eil-gaab where I met someone I knew. He told me my family had fled to Xamar-weyne [south Mogadishu].
"One of my worst experiences took place here in Eil-gaab. It happened early one morning after I had reported to work. Shooting started and a bomb exploded near my spot. A friend of mine, who was also shining shoes, was hit. He lost his leg and an arm; somehow, I managed to survive without an injury. I did not turn up to work for days after the incident."
Abdi said he later returned to work because he is the family's bread winner. "I earn about 40,000 shillings [US$1.50] daily and for this reason, I will not stop working despite the uncertainty involved."
Many of the shoe-shining children expressed their desire for schooling.
"It is circumstances that have forced me to work for my family but if I can get an education I will be happy to go to school because I know that in future, education can help me," Mustaf Khadar, another shoe-shiner, said.
Several women's organizations are involved in efforts to support children who have to work to help their families.
"With the support of [international organizations] we have identified about 480 children in Galgadud and Mogadishu," an official of one, who declined to be named, told IRIN. "Some we feed while others we enrol in vocational training. However, we cannot host them in one place because we are afraid they could be bombed."
Despite the difficulties of working on Mogadishu's streets, many shoe-shiners are optimistic that the city will be peaceful some day.
"My mother tells me that fighting will end, but we are waiting to see this happening," Ismail Abdi said. "We hope that one day, we will go to school and that peace will come to Mogadishu."
*Not their real names