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Somali woman shines in military training program, giving hope to European trainers
IBANDA, Uganda (AP) ' 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 Noor, when they finally return home, can prove that the money was not wasted.
Col. Michael Beary, an Irish 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. Beary said he is instead trying to create disciplined soldiers who will return home with "a different attitude."
The 608 Somali soldiers in the current class are being trained on 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 has already 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," Beary said. "It is having a real effect on the ground."
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 forward 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," 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. But the trainers say they cannot afford to focus on terrorists whose power is fading under pressure from foreign armies backing Somalia's transitional government. The class hopes to create good citizens.
This thinking, missing in earlier sessions, is being practiced partly through what is called "training of trainers," courses in which a few fast-learning Somalis are taught skills they are expected to pass on. Noor is specializing in saving lives in combat, and these days she spends a lot of time training with rubber dummies.
"She's good, very good," said Abdullahi Kula, a translator observing her teaching a class on CPR from a distance.
Noor's teachers say they like her enthusiasm.
"I met her the first day she arrived," said Portuguese Lt. Col. Mariano Alves, the camp's training commander. "She was very active. Immediately she asked me how life was here, how I was doing. She is a nice person."
Noor is a private in the Somali army and the widowed mother of six children. She suspects she would be serving tea back home if she were not in the military. And she says she taught herself how to speak English, a skill that contributes to her popularity.
"When I go back home the women will look at me and say, 'Look at her, she's 40 years old and we are 20,'" she said. "They will want to come here. But they can't speak English like me."
Many of the Somalis here, who range in age from 18 to 40, are illiterate, and only 15 percent speak English. The trainers rely on a few translators to impart their lessons.
Each of the trainees will get $100 for every month spent at the camp, but they can only receive the cash after completing the course. Trainers say the money does a lot to keep them motivated.
"Like babies, they start by crawling, and then they start running," said Sgt. Godfrey Onio, a Ugandan who has helped train the Somalis since the mission started.
European and Ugandan officials say they cannot control what happens after the Somalis return home. There have been defections in the past, with some frustrated trainees joining al-Shabab for better pay.
Roberto Ridolfi, the Italian head of the EU delegation in Uganda, said any renewal of the military program would be predicated on what happens after the mandate of Somalia's transitional government expires in August.
The diplomat recalled a recent trip to Bihanga, where he was introduced to trainees including Noor. He was impressed that the woman had returned for advanced training, and he thanked her.
"It's a beautiful example," he said. "What the woman is doing is a good example of leadership."
(This version CORRECTS Adds photos. Corrects spelling of "officials.")