Children and Armed Conflict
Since September 2014, Houthis used child soldiers under 18, including some under the age of 15, according to a 2019 UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen report in 2019. According to the secretary general, out of 3,034 children recruited throughout the war in Yemen, 1,940—64 percent—were recruited by the Houthis.
In July, the UN secretary-general released his annual “list of shame” for violations against children in armed conflict during 2018. The list detailed that 398 children were killed or injured by the Houthis.
According to the 2017 Secretary-General Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict released in May last year, the U.N. verified 842 cases of the recruitment and use of boys as young as 11 years old in the Yemen conflict. Among those reported cases, nearly two-thirds, or 534, were attributed to the Houthis.
The Houthis have inducted 18,000 child soldiers into their rebel army since the beginning of the war in 2014, a senior Houthi military official acknowledged to the AP. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.
That figure is higher than any number previously reported. The United Nations was able to verify 2,721 children recruited to fight for all sides in the conflict, the large majority for the Houthis, but officials say that count is likely low because many families will not speak about the issue out of fear of reprisals from Houthi militiamen.
Some of the children told the AP they joined the rebels willingly, mainly because of promises of money or the chance to carry a weapon. But others described being forced into the service of the Houthis — abducted from schools or homes or coerced into joining in exchange for a family member’s release from detention.
Many can be seen manning checkpoints along main roads across northern and western Yemen, AK-47s dangling from their narrow shoulders. Others are sent to the front lines as foot soldiers.
A 13-year-old named Riyadh said half of the fighters he served with on the front lines in Yemen’s mountainous Sirwah district were children. Rebel officers ordered them to push forward during battles, even as coalition jets zoomed overhead, he said.
More than 6,000 children have died or been maimed in Yemen since the beginning of the war, UNICEF reported in October. But the UN agency has not been able to determine how many of those minors were combatants and the Houthi-run Defense Ministry does not release its records for casualties.
A former teacher from the city of Dhamar said that at least 14 pupils from his school were recruited and then died in battle. Their pictures were placed on empty classroom seats in 2016 during the Week of the Martyr, which the Houthis celebrate each year in February. Most of them were fifth and sixth graders, he said. An education official from Dhamar confirmed his account. The two spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.
Top Houthi officials heap praise on young soldiers who have died in a conflict they describe as a sacred war against America, Israel and other outside powers they believe are trying to take over the country.
Houthi commander’s request that a school gives a student top marks for his exams because he was fighting, and said in some cases, families have been forced to celebrate their child’s martyrdom after receiving the news of their death.
Children, parents, educators, social workers, and other Yemenis interviewed by the AP described an aggressive campaign that targets children — and is not always completely voluntary. Houthi officials use their access to the Civil Registry Authority and other state records to gather data that allows them to narrow down their target list of the neediest families in villages and displacement camps — the ones most likely to accept offers of cash in return for recruits.
In Sanaa, the Yemeni capital under Houthi control, recruiters go door to door telling parents they must either turn over their sons or pay money for the war effort, according to residents.
The AP interviewed the 18 former child soldiers at displacement camps and a counseling center in the city of Marib, which is controlled by the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition. They had come to Marib after slipping away from rebel forces or being captured by coalition units.
Because of their ages and because some of them acknowledge committing acts of brutality, the AP is only using their first names. Some children gave themselves a nom du Guerre after they joined the fighting. One 10-year-old boy, for example, called himself Abu Nasr, Arabic for “Father of Victory.”
A 13-year-old boy named Saleh told the AP that Houthi militiamen stormed his family’s home in the northern district of Bani Matar on a Saturday morning and demanded he and his father come with them to the front lines. He said his father told them, “Not me and my son” and then tried to pull his rifle on them. “They dragged him away,” the boy recalled. “I heard the bullets, then my father collapsing dead.”
Saleh said the militiamen took him with them and forced him to do sentry duty at a checkpoint 12 hours a day.
International relief agencies working on child protection programs in northern Yemen are not allowed to discuss the use of child soldiers, out of fear their agencies will be barred from delivering aid to Houthi-controlled territories, according to four aid workers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This is a taboo,” one said.
“They don’t raise the issue,” said Abdullah al-Hamadi, a former deputy education minister who defected earlier this year from the Houthi-controlled government in the north.