More child soldiers fighting in Yemen war
Sana’a - Clad in military fatigues, 14-year-old Walid al- Kadmi proudly boasts of his agility in handling an automatic rifle, which is almost as long as he is tall. The Yemeni boy seldom parts from his lethal “toy”. He is among a great number of children recruited on both sides of Yemen’s conflict pitting Houthi rebels against armed forces and militias supporting President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
Taking up a weapon is a sign of manhood in the Arab world’s poorest country, which has the world’s second-highest number of arms per capita after the United States.
“I have always wanted to enlist in the army and was waiting to become 18, the official age of recruitment, to join its ranks,” Kadmi said. More than a year ago, however, he was drawn into the Iran-backed Houthi militia to help feed his family — he has nine sisters and brothers. They could barely survive on their father’s retirement pension.
“The Houthis have promised my father to recruit me officially in their cadres and pay me a regular monthly salary,” Kadmi said. His effort helps put food on the table, a main incentive behind parents allowing him to be recruited in return for $4-$5 a day.
After the Houthis seized control of Sana’a in January 2015, Kadmi served as a security guard outside a government bank. He was later summoned to the front in the southern port city of Aden and is now posted at a checkpoint in northern Sana’a.
Kadmi considers himself “luckier” than others his age who have either been killed or captured in the conflict.
Around one-third of combatants in Yemen’s civil war are children, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Both the Houthi rebels and militias fighting on behalf of Hadi have been sending children to the front lines of the war, in which more than 7,000 people, including 2,800 civilians, have been killed.
UNICEF indicated that an average of eight children are killed or maimed daily, charging that both the Houthis and the government have gone back on pledges to end using children as soldiers.
“Efforts to put an end to the recruitment of child soldiers in Yemen were aborted due to the ongoing war,” said Ahmad al-Qurashi, chairman of Seyaj Organisation for Childhood Protection.
“Throughout Yemen’s turbulent history, children have been armed and sent into battle by all parties which run militias, though at different rates. The expansion of the Houthis has definitely increased that rate but we cannot say the other parties are innocent. They are all doing it,” Qurashi said.
Abdel Basset Hatami, a social studies professor at Sana’a University, said economic factors were the main reasons for children joining militias.
“The family plays a big role in engaging their children because of their lack of resources,” he said. “Children are used as a merchandise sold in return for income, a trend that is further aggravated by the parents’ ignorance and lack of awareness.”
Warning about the long-term effects of the practice, Hatami cautioned that child fighters develop wrong assumptions and hatreds that could prolong the conflict for generations. “At that age, they just can’t assimilate what is post-conflict. They will always feel that an enemy is out there and should be resisted,” he said.
Psychology professor Sadiq Basha said Yemen might end up having a “more aggressive” and violent generation, adding: “Child soldiers could become physically impaired and develop psychological handicaps which would make them a burden on their families and the society after the conflict has ended.”
“Many children, driven by a lack of resources or a desire to seek revenge for their families, are fighting eagerly in the front lines,” Basha said. “I know of many orphans who were dragged into fighting and turned into merciless and restless killing machines.”
The war has sparked a humanitarian disaster in the country, already the poorest in the Arab world. About 1.3 million children under 5 years old are at risk of malnutrition and at least 2 million children are out of school, according to UNICEF.
UN data indicate that 747 children were killed and another 1,108 injured since March 2015 and at least 700, with ages ranging from 9 to 17, were pressed into some form of military activity.
Yemeni social researcher and expert with UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) Rasha Jarhum called on the international community to establish a comprehensive rehabilitation programme to help reintegrate child soldiers into society.
“These children should be offered shelters and safe havens, their recruiters should be brought to justice and the Yemeni government must implement a plan to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers,” Jarhum said.
Until better prospects come along for Yemen’s children, Kadmi insists on keeping his weapon close to his chest. “It is a source of pride and dignity,” he said, pointing at his rifle.