Houthis admit to recruiting thousands of child soldiers

The Houthis are thought to be recruiting child soldiers because their ranks are smaller and thinned by battlefield losses.
Friday 21/12/2018
Houthi child soldiers sit on the side of a road in Sana’a. (Reuters)
Firewood of the inferno. Houthi child soldiers sit on the side of a road in Sana’a. (Reuters)

LONDON – The Iran-backed Houthi rebels have inducted 18,000 child soldiers in the ranks of their militia since the beginning of the war in Yemen in 2014, a senior Houthi military official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.

The new figure is higher than any number previously reported. A report released in August by a UN panel said about 1,814 child soldiers identified in 2017 were deployed by Houthi rebels and their allies, but experts said the count was likely low, because many families would not address the issue out of fear of reprisals from the militiamen.

The Houthis say they don’t recruit children and send away those who try to enlist. However, it was revealed last June that the Iran-backed rebels had been using financial incentives to recruit child soldiers from poor families and coerce them into fighting through threats and beatings.

Children who tried to escape were forced to return, according to Yemeni Minister of Human Rights Mohammed Askar, whose testimony was shown in a documentary presented by the Yemeni Coalition to Monitor Human Rights Violations at a symposium at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva earlier this year.

“Many families send their children to join the Houthi militias in exchange for nearly 50,000 Yemeni riyals, equivalent to US$150 [Dh550],” Askar then said, citing interviews with child recruits and their families.

The Houthis are thought to be recruiting child soldiers because their ranks are smaller and thinned by battlefield losses. Top Houthi officials have reportedly been heaping praise on young soldiers who have died in the conflict that they described as a sacred war against outside powers they believe are trying to take over the country.

Under the Houthi-controlled Defence Ministry, the rebels have pursued what they call a “national voluntary recruitment campaign.”

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 Defence Ministry did not release records of casualties.

In early November, Geert Cappelaere, the regional director for UNICEF, said Yemen was a “living hell” for children. In addition to creating shortages of food and clean water, fighting has caused the breakdown of Yemen’s medical system, including immunisations, leading to fatal outbreaks of measles and diphtheria.

According to the UN, half of Yemeni children under 5 are chronically malnourished. It says 400,000 children are so malnourished that they will likely die without intervention.

The war in Yemen has raged since 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition was formed with international backing to reinstall Yemen’s internationally recognised government. Hopes of a quick victory were, however, soon dashed because Houthi rebels, aided with arms shipments and assistance from Iran, managed to withstand military pressure.

The UN estimates that at least 10,000 people have been killed since the war began, a low figure given the ferocity of the conflict.  The UN figure does not include deaths from malnutrition or diseases such as cholera which have ravaged parts of Yemen, which even before the war was one of the world’s poorest countries.

(With Associated Press)