Underage soldiers are increasingly at the front line of Yemen’s prolonged clashes, with most factions recruiting child soldiers. But why? And how does it impact its young victims?
Sheikh Abdu Mansour Dahwa has lost four of his children and grandchildren, including two aged 16 and 17, in on-going clashes in Taiz, southwestern Yemen.
Despite his loss, Mansour Dahwa, a member of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform Party (al-Islah), says he would encourage more of his children and grandchildren to follow in their footsteps and “defend Islam in face of the Shiite invasion,” referring to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forces, supported by the Houthi rebels.
Other locals agreed. “My 13-year-old son has been killed in the clashes in defense of Taiz’s dignity,” said Muhammad Ali Qa’ed.
Children are increasingly fighting in clashes between forces loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was forced to flee in February, and those allied to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis. Also fighting are the al-Islah militias – the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen – and other groups allied with them, namely the People’s Resistance on the one hand. The Houthi militants support pro-former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced to step down after 33 years as Yemen’s president in early 2012 following months of widespread protests and violence.
The recruitment of children is widespread in Yemen, and practically all sides have under-age fighters. The trend fits into a longer history, according to Hussein Alwaday, Communication for Development Officer at UNICEF in Yemen. “Children used to be recruited in Yemen even before the current war,” he said. “Even the police and security services do it.”
He said that all sides fighting in Yemen recruit and use children in wars as fighters, correspondents or to transfer information or materials. “The Houthis, however, are the leading recruiters of children, taking as many as 40 percent of all recruited children in Yemen. The war in Yemen helped expand child recruitment by the Southern Resistance, the People’s Resistance and al-Qaeda in many regions.”
‘Sectarian incitement driving children to battlegrounds’
And the numbers of children involved in the fighting are on the rise. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Leila Zerrougui explained: “The number of cases of child recruitment and use documented by the UN during the first eight months of 2015 had been triple the number for the whole of 2014 – and 82 percent of verified recruitment cases were attributed to Houthi forces,” she said, according to a UN news report.
Many factors underpin children’s recruitment, including poverty and political, intellectual, sectarian and territorial incitement practiced by all parties to the conflict. Fighters, including children, are sent to training camps owned by the warring parties in most Yemeni governorates. Poverty, is a major reason children participate, but, even more importantly, Alwaday explains, “sectarian incitement has driven more children to battlegrounds.”
Recruited children are exposed to religious and ideological lectures that incite feelings of hatred and religious, sectarian, intellectual and territorial fanaticism. They are also trained on using all kinds of arms.
The pro-Hadi Yemen Satellite Channel – currently broadcasting from Riyadh – aired interviews with a number of children from the Dhamar Governorate, in northern Yemen, who were reportedly caught during clashes in the governorates of Aden and Lahij, in southern Yemen, while fighting alongside the Houthis.
Abu Adnan, a leader of the Houthis, said in an interview with the Yemeni newspaper that five of his children and brothers aged 15-17 “are on the front fighting the agents of foreign aggression and takfiris” in a reference to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition of Arab states, pro-Hadi forces and the People’s Resistance, comprised of al-Islah, al-Qaeda and ISIS – an unknown group that claimed through online statements responsibility for bombing Zaidi mosques in the Yemeni capital Sana’a.
Wars, in general, psychologically harm children but when children are forced or persuaded to fight the wounds are deep.
“The conflicts, fighting, hatred, bloodshed and torn-off limbs witnessed by children are impressed in their inner mind and remain very much alive in their memory and children consequently become cruel,” said Abdulhafez Khameri, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Sana’a University. “Later, when they are subjected to any pressures or difficulties, they relapse psychologically and neglect others’ values and feelings, which may impact their ability to establish a successful family. They may keep what they have undergone inside and redirect it at their wives and children. Eventually they themselves may become a victim of their own behavior. Ignorant people say such children become bolder and more courageous which is nonsense. On the contrary, a lot of the cases visiting psychiatric clinics and traditional curers are victims of such behavior.”
A survey of the displaced children’s situation in the governorates of Amran and Al Hudaydah conducted by Save the Children Yemen (SCY) in partnership with the Al-Twasul for Human Development in July showed that half of the surveyed children prefer to stay at home when they become ill and fear leaving their displacement areas due to air strikes and armed clashes. “The results confirm the disastrous impacts war is having on Yemen’s children,” said Edward Santiago, SCY Director. “They have been displaced or forced to leave schools, or fallen victims to abuse, violence and even death.”