DHOBLEY, Somalia (AP) — Adan Abdi worries that the students in his class show too little interest in education. That might be a common complaint among teachers, but Abdi's concerns go further: His students are interested in playing war.
Abdi is a teacher in southern Somalia, a region that has been dominated by militia violence for years.
"Students here are not so much interested in learning because they can see a lot of people carrying guns," said the 22-year-old English teacher. "Small guys like them are carrying guns, when they go from (school) to their houses ... they pretend to be fighting using sticks like guns.
"That's what they have in their hearts. Their intention: That they will fight when they grow older," Abdi said.
UNICEF says an entire generation of children has grown up knowing only conflict and fighting in many parts of Somalia, and possibly thousands of children have been trained in combat.
Sikander Khan, the top official for the U.N. children's agency in Somalia, says there is an increased need to invest more in Somalia's youth and children to give long-term peace a chance to prevail.
"We need to make sure that this generation receives quality basic education, access to social services and protection from violence and abuse," he said. "This will stop them being sucked into the continuing violence and they will then be able to make a positive and lasting contribution to the future of Somalia."
Many children in Somalia have little or no education. Only about a third of children of primary-school age are enrolled in school, according to UNICEF.
Children in Somalia are frequently forced to join armed groups such as the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab. Schools have also come under attack.
"It is estimated that thousands of children have been trained in the use of arms and other skills related to combat. Reports from our partners indicate that in recent months there has been an increase in the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict by warring partners," Khan said.
Mohamed Deq Nur, a 14-year-old student in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, said he remembers 2006 because he went a month without hearing a gunshot. That year a group called the Islamic Courts Union brought some semblance of order when they took control of Somalia and tried to enforce their strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Mohamed says he has seen dead bodies on the street — most recently, he said, when a man was shot because he refused to give a thief his watch. Mohamed said he doesn't know how to use a gun but thinks it would be good to learn for self protection.
Last year, he said, he and many of his friends begged their parents to get them out of Mogadishu.
But he said he thinks things are now getting better. Regional troops are pushing al-Shabab on three sides, giving the government a chance to try to restore order.
"I don't think Somalia had any future before, but this year is different," he said. "Squatters are being evicted from school buildings which means there will be enough space for learning and there is already free education in some schools and the fighting stopped in Mogadishu."
Somalia has been in conflict since the 1991, when long-term dictator Siad Barre was overthrown by warlords who then turned on each other. Al-Shabab has had a grip on much of south-central Somalia for the last several years, but now faces hostile militaries on three sides. Al-Shabab was pushed out of the capital last year.
Khan says the violence has deprived children of their childhood. Because of the conflict, many are also at risk of disease and malnutrition, among other safety risks, because of the lack of an effective central government.
Somalia had one of the worst child mortality rates in the world. One out of every six children die before their 5th birthday, he said.
For Abdi, the teacher, who attended high school in neighboring Kenya, 100 more students have enrolled in his school since al-Shabab insurgents were kicked out of town last year by Somali government forces.
The trend of increased enrollments seems to be the same throughout Somalia, increasing from some 285,000 in 2003-2004 to more than 760,000 in the 2011-2012 school year, according to Sikander.
In Dhobley, Somali government forces who are now backed by Kenyan troops have brought relative peace and stability to the town, Abdi said.
Before that, many residents had moved away because of al-Shabab's brutal rule. He admits in the current situation, even he is looking for opportunities to leave.
"I cannot move because my family is here and I don't know anywhere else to go," he said.
Associated Press reporter Abdi Guled in Mogadishu, Somalia contributed to this report.