MOGADISHU (AFP) — Stray bullets and molestors are only some of the dangers 11-year-old Abdi Mohamed Abdusamad faces when he chooses a place to sleep in the streets of Mogadishu.
War and poverty have thrown thousands of children into the streets of the Somali capital, leaving them in the crossfire of one of the world’s most brutal guerrilla wars and exposed to disease, drugs and sexual violence.
Abdi spends his days collecting plastic bottles as well as the bags in which khat deliveries arrive several times a day to satisfy the Somali male population’s addiction to the mild narcotic plant.
The children wash them and sell them back, earning enough to buy one or two packs of cigarettes on which they can then make a small profit selling by the stick.
"Sometimes the little money you have earned in the day is taken away by an older street boy… There are also those who want to molest the younger children," says Abdi.
A torn red tee-shirt dangles from his bony shoulders as from a hanger. His face is covered in dirt. "I only get a chance to wash on Fridays," he says.
In the devastated trading neighbourhood of Bakara — from which most residents have fled — little clusters of children clothed in rags and as young as eight or nine can be seen sniffing glue.
"I’ve lived in the streets of Mogadishu since my parents left the capital for safety reasons. I remained here… to collect bags from the streets and shine shoes," says Ahmed Mukhtar, another 11-year-old boy.
He says his daily work can earn him between 6,000 and 10,000 Somali shillings, around half a dollar or just enough to buy a meal of rice in a cheap restaurant and a banana.
According to UNICEF and local aid agencies, there are at least 5,000 street children in the war-torn capital.
"Three thousand of them spend the night at the homes of distant relatives or neighbours, but the remaining 2,000 sleep in the streets most of the time," says Amina Mohamed, a Somali aid worker specialised in child protection.
"They find work in the streets, shoe-shining and also collecting old khat leaves from the market. They sell them to the poorest addicts who can’t afford a fix of fresh bundles," she explains.
The children’s desperate scramble to find in the city’s litter enough to survive until the next day takes place in some of the worst neighbourhoods of a city often described as one of the most dangerous in the world.
"Besides the humanitarian difficulties, the children are at risk of being hit by stray bullets and rockets more than any other person in the capital," says Zeynab Mohamud, a volunteer and retired school teacher.
Every child has tales of narrow escapes and sleepless nights sheltering from the daily clashes pitting Ethiopian-backed Somali government forces against Islamist insurgents.
All sides in the street guerrilla war which has further destroyed an already battered city since last year have been accused by rights group of using disproportionate force and failing to protect civilians.
Some of the children populating the streets of Mogadishu’s deserted flashpoint neighbourhoods still have parents in the city but are being used to bring extra income to the household.
"My mother wakes me up in the morning, she says a prayer for me to be safe and gives me breakfast so that I can spend the day in Bakara," says Ali Sheikh Mohamed, a 12-year-old.
"What money I make I bring mostly back to her so that she can feed my two sisters and brother," he says.
Ali’s nine-year-old brother also works in the streets. "But he rarely gets much money because he’s working from a new neighbourhood."
Some aid agencies pay small amounts of cash to guards working in areas where street children sleep in a bid to protect them from child molestors.
"These children were driven here by poverty. I treat them like they were my own but financially I can do nothing for them," says Mohamed Hassan, a watchman in central Mogadishu’s Hamerweyn district.
Ali says education is a luxury he and his siblings can ill afford since their father was swept away by illness and their mother’s new husband killed by a stray bullet.
In a city which has been turned into a field of ruins by 17 years of bitter civil conflicts, school is low on the list of priorities for many children, who dream of guns and dollars.
"I wish I owned a nice car and had lots of personal guards in vehicles mounted with heavy machineguns," says Issak Mohamed, a boy of 11 years.
Mustafa Daud, who is one year older, says he would like to become a doctor or a successful businessman with hundreds of people working for him.
"I must be nice to be rich and loved by everyone."