RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Somalia hasn't had a functioning government for a couple of decades, but now the European Union has taken on the challenge of helping to build a national army for that country. EU soldiers are spending a year training 2,000 Somali recruits while the U.S. pays the salaries of the new soldiers. The plan is to send them to the capital, Mogadishu, to help fight off Islamist insurgents. NPR's Frank Langfitt visited the soldiers at their new training ground.
FRANK LANGFITT: Class is in in the rolling hills of South Western Uganda. There's crowd control...
(Soundbite of yelling, banging, whistle-blowing)
LANGFITT: ...target practice...
(Soundbite of gunfire)
LANGFITT: ...and Urban Warfare 101. 1st Sergeant Paulo Gujao of the Portugese army - he's showing Somali recruits how to fight in streets and abandoned buildings. The small brick structure stands in for the bombed-out Somali capital. A student lies inside, poking the barrel of his AK-47 through a hole. Gujao teaches as another man translates.
Sergeant PAULO GUJAO (Portugese Army): Don't put (unintelligible) your weapons, okay?
Unidentified Man (Translator): (Foreign language spoken)
Sgt. GUJAO: Outside the building. Because when you shoot, special(ph) at night, the enemy will see the flame. Okay? It's easy. (Unintelligible) and you and your guys (unintelligible) all of you will die, okay?
LANGFITT: Then in Somali he asks if they understand.
Sgt. GUJAO: On Thursday. Don't forget. Always be more smart than al-Shabab. Always.
LANGFITT: Al-Shabab is an Islamist militant group that controls most of South and Central Somalia. In recent weeks it's trying to destroy the country's weak U.S.-backed government with a surge of suicide bombs and mortar fire. Al-Shabab wants to turn Somalia into a strict Islamist state. Some members want to export violence to neighboring countries in East Africa, including American allies. Gujao hopes his students can help derail those plans. But he says teaching them hasn't been easy, largely because of Somalia's anarchic history. Somalia has been engulfed in civil war for nearly two decades and most schools have been closed for years.
Sgt. GUJAO: We have people here, they don't, they can't read, so it's difficult. But they have one good thing. They have, they want to learn, and that is very important. If they don't understand my letter, I make a picture on the ground.
LANGFITT: Reading wasn't the only problem. Somalia fragments along complicated clan lines, like an East African version of the Hatfields and the McCoys, only on a larger, more lethal scale. Trainers say when recruits first got here, clans hung together and members occasionally got into fist fights. Colonel Philippe Bouillard is deputy commander for the training mission. He says the biggest surprise were the Somalis' fighting skills. For people who have spent so much time at war, they weren't very good at it.
Colonel PHILIPPE BOUILLARD (Portugese Army): The guys who fight before in Mogadishu, used the weapons, no aiming, nothing, and only to launch some bullets.
LANGFITT: The Europeans are training the Somalis in a remote military base in Uganda with a basic budget of about $7 million. Next month the recruits will return home and join thousands of Somali army soldiers who are heavily supported by about 7,000 African Union troops. Trainers here say building a competent military is critical to Somalia's future and security in East Africa.
In July, al-Shabab claimed responsibility for two bombings in Uganda, killing more than 70 people. Lieutenant Colonel Felix Kulayigye is a spokesman for the Ugandan army, which is hosting the training. He says if Somalia remains lawless...
Lieutenant Colonel FELIX KULAYIGYE (Spokesman for Ugandan Army): It is a safe haven for terrorism and I want to assure you, you Americans, you are not safe from terrorism unless Somalia provides a safe haven. So it pays the American to spend on stabilizing Somalia.
LANGFITT: The U.S. government seems to agree. It's providing a $100 a month in salary to recruits here through to the end of the year. But getting money into the soldiers' pockets has been a problem. Just ask Mohammed Arab Barre. Arab Barre has fought for the Somali army for seven years.
Unidentified Man #1: Alpha bravo, alpha bravo, alpha bravo.
Unidentified Man #2: Bravo.
LANGFITT: Right now he's practicing squat attacks on a grassy hillside. He says the government owes him a lot of money.
Mr. MOHAMMED ARAB BARRE (Somali Army): (Through translator) After three or four months, we get one month's pay.
LANGFITT: Other soldiers say they wait even longer. Arab Barre says this kills morale. He said during one training trip soldiers deserted in droves.
Mr. ARAB BARRE: (Through translator) When we went to train in Ethiopia, there were 900 of us. After three months we were down to 300. Some joined al-Shabab because they hadn't been paid. Some went home and some disappeared.
LANGFITT: Arab Barre said some soldiers even sold their government-issued rifles to al-Shabab for eight or nine hundred dollars just to buy food. The U.S. government is using an accounting firm to monitor payments. American officials say part of the problem is the Somali government doesn't have enough money to pay the entire army regularly. Another is internal corruption. Arab Barre says the EU trainers taught him many new valuable skills, like fighting in urban areas and how to set up road blocks. And he's excited to put them to use.
Mr. ARAB BARRE: (Through translator) I'll go back to Somalia and train other soldiers there.
LANGFITT: The EU trainers say that's the ultimate test - not what recruits learn here in Uganda but whether they return to Somalia and use it to help their homeland. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.