Sun, Dec 23, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Children as young as 10 fight and die in Yemen’s civil war

Former child soldiers recount stories of forced recruitment and orders to torture and kill for the Houthis in the Yemeni civil war, while aid workers describe quotas for recruiters and sexual abuse by commanders

By Maggie Michael  /  AP, MARIB, Yemen

Illustration: Louise Ting

The number etched on the bracelet around Mohammed’s wrist gave the 13-year-old soldier comfort as missiles fired from enemy warplanes shook the earth beneath him.

For two years, Mohammed fought with Yemen’s Houthi rebels against a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the US.

He says he tortured and killed people, and did not care whether he lived or died.

However, if he died, the bracelet would guarantee his body made it home.

“When I become a martyr, they enter my number in the computer, retrieve my picture and my name, then print them with the name ‘Martyr’ underneath,” Mohammed said.

It would be pasted to the lid of his coffin for return to his family.

Mohammed was among 18 former child soldiers who described the Houthis’ unrelenting efficiency when it comes to the recruitment, deployment and even battlefield deaths of boys as young as 10.

While both sides in the four-year civil war have sent children into combat in violation of international human rights conventions, the Houthis are believed to have recruited many more than the coalition — often forcibly.

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 told reporters.

He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.

That figure is higher than any number previously reported.

The UN verified 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 militants.

The Houthis say officially that they do not recruit children and send away those who try to enlist.

Some of the children told reporters that they joined the rebels willingly, mainly because of promises of money or the chance to carry a weapon.

However, 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 at 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 that 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.

He said he pleaded with his commander to let the young fighters take cover during airstrikes: “Sir, the planes are bombing.”

The reply was always: “Followers of God, you must attack,” he said.

An unknown number of child soldiers have been sent home in coffins.

More than 6,000 children have died or been maimed in Yemen since the beginning of the war, UNICEF reported in October.

However, the UN agency has not been able to determine how many of those minors were combatants and the Houthi-run Ministry of Defense 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.

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