Middle-age Somali woman commands respect of trainees

Instructor, daughter part of new army

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BANDA, Uganda — A military instructor clad in fatigues and boots who barks out orders to men half her age has become the unlikely star of a European Union program to train thousands of Somali troops.

Nearly 98 percent of the trainees in the six-month class being held in a remote Ugandan village are men. But it is 40-year-old Fatuma Hassan Noor, who returned for advanced training, who often gets mentioned in discussions of what the program can be proud of after its mandate expires in December.

Western governments are injecting millions of dollars into a program that they hope will contribute to the stabilization of Somalia, and officials stationed here hope dedicated students like Ms. Noor, when they finally return home, can prove that the money was not wasted.

Col. Michael Beary, an Irish army officer who is in charge of the training mission, said he is not sending soldiers back to Somalia to defeat the militant group al-Shabab.

Col. Beary said he is trying instead to create disciplined soldiers who will return home with “a different attitude.”

The 608 Somali soldiers in the current class are being trained in good citizenship, women’s rights and how to stop gender-based violence, as well as weapons training, first aid, mine detection and communication during battle.

The 60 trainers in the village of Ibanda come from 12 European countries. The program already has trained 1,800 Somalis since 2010.

The trainers say the mission is a small but vital contribution toward the creation of a professional army.

“This mission is very successful,” Col. Beary said. “It is having a real effect on the ground.”

Ms. Noor is well-regarded because she was a member of the inaugural 2010 class but returned last year to train as a noncommissioned officer, a step toward her goal of practicing as an army nurse.

This time, she came with her daughter, Amal Ahmed, who now says she is no longer afraid of a loaded AK-47.

“We don’t feel lonely when we are together,” Ms. Noor said last week.

The girl glanced at her mother and said: “We comfort each other. … Some say my mother brought me here, but I tell them that I am strong enough to correct my mother when she is wrong.”

The mother-and-daughter presence on a camp dominated by men has infused some excitement into a program that is conditioned by fluid and often volatile events in Somalia, which has lacked a stable government since 1991.

Al-Shabab is on the mind of everyone at the Bihanga camp, where students train among structures built to resemble Mogadishu’s ruins.

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