SANA’A—Hussein Ahmed goes with his friend Ali Daily to an inspection point next to the Olympic Center, North Sana’a, where he was recruited at age 16 by the Houthi Movement.
“The movement gave us weapons and a daily schedule for our guard duty at the checkpoints,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed, who is supposed to serve as a soldier for two years, is not the only one who joined the armed groups at an early age. Unicef has reported that more than 10,000 children have been recruited for armed forces in Yemen since 2011.
In April of this year alone, Unicef said, at least 140 children were recruited by armed groups, 115 children died in fighting, and 172 were injured. All that happened as a result of the conflicts that began on March 26 between the forces led by Saudi Arabia, the Houthi Movement, and the proponents of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
According to Mohamed Al-Asaady, a Unicef spokesperson, the recruitment of children increased 47 percent during 2014 from the previous year. “The number of dead children might exceed the declared figures because of the high number of armed confrontations,” he said. Unicef includes in its numbers voluntary or compulsory recruitment for those less than 18 years old by government forces or any other armed groups.
At a checkpoint, Hussein stops cars and inspects them. Although his slim body sways from lifting heavy weapons, he still has an innocent look on his face.
Since his recruitment, he has not held a book or a pen. “I do not need education,” he says. “My father encourages me to hold weapons and serve my country and I do not earn money.”
Recruiting children for war is not new in Yemen. Youngsters have been able to join the army before they turn 18 since the inception of the peaceful protests in Yemen in 2011. To fight the protesters, the Ministries of Interior and Defense opened the door for recruitment, and thousands of men, unemployed youth and even preparatory-school students applied and have served in the military.
The recruitment of children increased drastically since the increase in armed confrontations in the country and the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city. The scene of children carrying weapons or participating in the fights has become familiar.
After the Houthi group took over the capital and set up checkpoints, the Ministry of Education announced that 148 schools were closed.
The desperate economic situation and tribal culture play a major role in the prevalence of children becoming soldiers. Service in the governmental forces guarantees income for Yemeni families—up to $150 monthly. Children fighting in the armed forces usually get both cash and regular meals.
“To be a fighter means earning money, which is a means to sustain a livelihood for children who come from low social standards,” said Julian Hernes, Unicef representative in Yemen, in a statement. “This takes place everywhere in Yemen from North to South.”
Sometimes the armed groups and their supporting civilian committees exploit the enthusiasm of some young people and get them to work for free.
Last year, Yemen signed an action plan with the United Nations to put an end to recruiting children for the armed forces. The plan includes the reform of national laws, the issuance of military orders to ban children’s recruitment, the investigation of recruitment allegations, and the integration of children who have served in the military back into society.
The latest security and political developments are hindering putting the plan into action, which was supposed to end children’s service in armed groups in 2016.
Ninety percent of all the children serving in the armed forces come from Sana’a, with many other children coming from Aden, Ebb, Taiz, and finally Dhamar, according to a study by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor in cooperation with other organizations at the beginning of the year.
The study found most recruits in Sana’a are still studying in schools or universities, whereas most recruits from Ebb, Taiz, Aden, and Dhamar are dropouts.
“The children’s situation in Yemen is critical and requires a serious stance that exceeds solidarity and sympathy to psychological support and school empowerment and direct aids,” said Ahmed Al-Quorashi, president of the SIAG, a nonprofit organization whose Arabic name means fence, and that works to protect children. He added that recruited children, either voluntary or obligatory, are prone to death, physical injury, sexual harassment, loss, and psychological disorders.
SIAG started the first campaign to combat recruiting children under the legal age in Yemen in 2011 and has been trying to document the problem, build awareness of it, and mentor children. The organization has monitored about 5,000 to 10,000 children on duty, mostly guarding group leaders and military sites.
“Recruited children are usually aggressive against their peers and colleagues, in addition to their overwhelming feelings of isolation,” said Mahioub Al-Kamaly, an educational expert.
Al-Kamaly says that the child soldiers of Yemen could create long-term problems for the country. “Those children have lost hope in their future and this is very dangerous,” he said.