The Old City of Sana’a, inhabited for more than 2,500 years, is one of the oldest cities in the world. On Friday, airstrikes reduced its historic houses to rubble. The airstrikes are part of a Saudi-led bombing campaign aimed at curtailing the power of the Houthi’s, a rebel movement who began their advance in September, sweeping into the capital, and causing the Yemeni president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to flee.
Sana’a is now a patchwork of heavily fortified checkpoints, and those patrolling the streets are armed. Many of those manning the checkpoints and patrolling the streets are young boys, most armed with guns that dwarf their bodies. Both Hadi’s troops and the Houthis are not strangers to using child soldiers. As the conflict has intensified, more and more children are being drawn into the battle.
An exact figure of how many boys are fighting in Yemen’s conflict is hard to come by. According to some estimates, boys younger than 18 form nearly a third of the Houthi rebel force’s approximately 25,000 fighters. Most are aged between 12-17 years.
The United Nations verified the recruitment of 106 children in 2013, some as young as six years of age. According to the UN, Salafists recruited 57 boys to fight against the Houthis, while 32 children were seen manning Houthi checkpoints. They also documented that 14 children were recruited by Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in the Abyan governorate. Most were lured into the battle during recruitment drives at market places and outside mosques.
The UN’s 2014 report, released last week, documented 156 children being recruited and used. Of these, the Houthis were responsible for 140.
The Houthis began in the 1990’s as the Believing Youth movement, launching an insurgency in 2004. A series of wars between the government and the Houthis followed, spurring them to ramp up their recruitment drive, says Yemeni child rights activist, Mohammed Al-Shami. “The idea was just to keep recruiting,” he said. “The Houthis were trying to recruit anyone who could hold a weapon.”
It is not just the Houthi’s and other militant groups that are willing to recruit children into their ranks. During the 2011 Yemeni revolution, child soldiers were recruited by the army to fight the Houthi insurgency. They were then used by a breakaway unit to protect anti-government protestors demanding the end of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33 year reign.
Last May, an action plan was signed between the Yemeni government and the UN to formally end and prevent any further recruitment of children, but this seems not to have ended the problem. Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, leader of the Houthis, also previously pledged that he would stop recruiting child soldiers. Again, this does not seem to be the case.
Instead, the growing chaos is adding to the problem. Schools are now closed in Yemen. Once places of education, they have been transformed into barracks by both forces allied to the government and militant groups. Jamal al-Shami, chairman of the Democracy School, a local NGO based in Sana’a, says: “Five million children are being deprived of an education at the moment because the war caused schools to close. They are not all now involved in the war, but a percentage of them are because of boredom,” he says. “Children and teenagers are now spending time in the courtyards, wasting time.”
Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, with 45 percent of the population going to bed hungry every day. The current situation is making it worse- according to the spokesman for the UN secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, more than one million people have been displaced since mid-March. Joining a militant group, even without the offer of a salary, at least guarantees a meal a day- sadly an big incentive for poverty stricken families.
“Recruitment most importantly means food,” says Mohammed Al-Shami. This means children are not necessarily discouraged by family members from joining the battle, he adds. Their desperate economic situation, coupled with traditional tribal beliefs that a boy becomes a man when he starts using a weapon, can mean parents may accept their child picking up arms.
A belief that children should not be exposed to violence is the underlying principle behind outlawing the recruitment of child soldiers. It is eleven weeks since the Saudi led airstrikes began to pound Yemen. Inside, the country is fractured by a variety of militant groups. Regardless of whether a child picks up arms or does not, it is growing increasingly difficult to stop the war in Yemen seeping into all their childhoods.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.