Yemen is a young country struggling through many internal problems. A civil war began in 2015 between the Yemeni government, with backing from Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi rebels. Now, it has become a conflict involving international leaders and is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the last 100 years. This is partly due to the mass exploitation of Yemeni child soldiers. It is very difficult to discover the exact number of recruited children due to the fluid roles of children, associated with family shame and fear. However, numbers ranged from about 3,000 to 50,000 children as of 2019.
Many Yemeni child soldiers have faced unfathomable hardships even before fighting. They have been constantly fleeing their homes to avoid airstrikes and war zones. Because of this, 3.4 million children are out of school and many are trying to earn the little money they can like Salah, who is about 11, and whose family cannot afford meals every day. Starvation and disease-ridden camps have been the way of life for thousands of families since the war began five years ago.
Conversely, schools recruit children in regions with access to education through “indoctrination” from lectures. The Houthi movement’s founder gives these lectures and transcribes them into booklets known as “Malazem.” During this, children as young as 10 view graphic images of the war and others who have died for the cause. This encourages them to do the same. A mother told the Group of Experts, a partition of the U.N. Human Rights Council, that she fears for her son’s future. She also said that such practices are prevalent across the region.
Recruitment also occurs in surrounding countries like Sudan, a country also struggling from domestic conflicts. Approached at 14, Hager Shomo Ahmed had received an offer of $10,000 in exchange for his service in the war. Like many children, this was dire for his family, as they became penniless after others stole their cattle.
Persuaded and desperate for food, purpose and money, thousands of children like these entered the war.
During the War
From both the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels, many Yemeni child soldiers went to the front lines. More than 1,000 have been coerced to fight.
Some dragged bodies from the field (sometimes even their own family), others would do kitchen services and others trained to use rifles. Naji, Younis and Saleh, Yemeni child soldiers who were around 11 and 13 at the time, recounted stories like these. A Saudi rehabilitation center that has helped about 400 boys has created a safe space for these stories.
A psychiatrist at a Marib rehabilitation center, Mayoub al-Makhlafi, says children have suffered as fighters and servants. Staffers recount children’s descriptions of experiencing beatings and sexual abuse from their own commanders.
Many, promised with money and non-combatant roles, find themselves in traffickers’ hands and training camps. Some are sent to patrol checkpoints 12 hours a day. Others are the first to be dispatched as human bodyguards. The young foot soldiers have no other option since they are lured with knowledge of a steady income sent home or depicted as martyrs.
The war has killed over 2,000 Yemeni child soldiers, as UNICEF reported in 2018. However, due to poor access to Yemen and limited data collection, these numbers are could be much higher.
Younis and his mother, Samira, shared the nightmares he used to have about the Houthis taking him again and how his mother would comfort him back to sleep.
In Dhamar, Yemen, a teacher places a photograph on desks of 14 former students during the Week of the Martyr, a celebration that the Houthi government enforces to continue its propaganda about the honor of fighting. The children, mostly fifth and sixth graders, mourn their friends. Those who do not die find themselves in displacement camps, like 14-year-old Morsal. Like many of his comrades, Morsal suffers from panic attacks, aggressive behavior and hearing loss from airstrikes and explosions.
Fifteen-year-old Mohammad’s father, Ali Hameed, details a time before the war and how his son had started working after graduating high school. He sadly continued to when his son left to join the Saudi coalition and then went missing. Some of the boys from Mohammad’s unit were able to flee and return home and the Houthis captured others. Mohammad was not part of either group.
Others like Hager, who had lost 180 men in his unit, were able to return home. By earning some money for his service, he was able to buy his family 10 cattle to restore their livelihood.
Coping with such traumatic events is extremely difficult for adults. However, the horrors are greater for children. Fortunately, The Wethaq Foundation for Civil Orientation developed eight rehabilitation centers across Yemen. As of 2019, it has helped 2,000 Yemeni child soldiers in psychological support and children’s rights education.
Internationally, the Child Protection and Children Friendly Spaces programs, initiatives of UNICEF, have given over 600,000 children psychosocial support through individual counseling, reading, cooperative games and family reunification, as of 2018 in Yemen.
Victim assistance is another crucial sector for children who have lost limbs. Such assistance is possible through Prosthesis and Rehabilitation centers in Yemen for children with disabilities as a result of the war. These centers receive support from the International Committee of the Red Cross. In just 2019, they have been able to provide over 1.1 million Yemenis emergency care in 18 hospitals that the IRC supports, and given food, essential home supplies, cash grants and access to clean water to 5.7 million Yemenis.
Broadly focused groups like War Child, working in North and South Yemen, have offered assistance to more than 30,000 children and families. War Child provides psychosocial support through coping mechanisms for trauma, recreational activities and legal support to enable school enrollment. Through school restoration and cash assistance to families, it is able to provide better futures for children.
Supporting these groups and others, vital for long-term recovery, is essential to nurturing the Yemeni child soldiers who have fallen victim to this waging war and the millions of civilians in the entire region suffering from starvation, displacement and great loss.
– Mizla Shrestha