Human Rights

Child soldiers serve as cannon fodder in Houthis' Marib assault

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi

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Yemeni mourners sit by coffins at a mosque during a funeral in Houthi-held Sanaa on March 14, 2019. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

ADEN -- Close to 2,000 children have been killed since February while fighting in the ranks of the Iran-backed Houthis as they battle for control of Yemen's Marib province, a top Yemeni official told the United Nations (UN).

Yemen's deputy permanent representative to the UN, Marwan Noman, spoke at a high-level meeting on the Protection of Children, victims of armed conflict and COVID-19, held September 24, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

"The recent assault on the city of Marib, launched at the beginning of February, led to the death of close to 2,000 children recruited by the Houthi coupist militia into its ranks," he said.

"The Houthi militia has recruited more than 35,000 children since 2014, 17% of whom are under the age of 11," he said, noting that "6,729 children are actively fighting on the group's frontlines.

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Supporters of the Houthis demonstrate in Sanaa on June 25, 2018, in support of fellow Houthis engaged in battles against the Arab coalition and Yemeni forces in the port city of al-Hodeidah. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

The Houthis regard their recruits "as nothing but fuel for their war", he said, warning that the Iran-backed group has been using schools, mosques and summer camps to indoctrinate and train children, and then send them to battle.

'A large army of children'

According to Deputy Minister of Justice Faisal al-Majeedi, the Houthis have "a large army of children comprising more than 40,000 recruits".

Based on accounts in Houthi-controlled media outlets, 2,100 children were killed on the battlefront over the course of one year while fighting in the group's ranks, said Abdo al-Hudhaifi, who heads Mayyun for Human Rights and Development.

The Houthis publish photos of dead children in their media outlets, al-Majeedi said, celebrating them as martyrs.

The militia pressures families experiencing extreme hardship or poverty to send their children to fight, offering them money or in-kind aid, he said, noting that the group also preys on orphans.

In some cases, children are encouraged to drop out of school to become fighters, he added, and there have been some instances of outright kidnapping as well.

Summer camps are a well-known mechanism for Houthi militia recruitment, with one of the group's leaders recently boasting that last summer's camps, held amid the coronavirus pandemic, attracted 620,000 students.

"Seven years of war, and the high death toll, have caused youth and adults to refrain from responding to recruitment calls, which compelled the Houthis to rely heavily on children," said lawyer and rights activist Abdul Rahman Berman.

The group has been grooming children to become fighters "because it is easy to persuade them and ensure their loyalty after they undergo brainwashing, either at the summer camps or in cultural courses", he said.

Poverty fuels child recruitment

Yemen's poverty rate is sky-high, and 80% of the population needs some kind of assistance, according to the UN.

This has made the financial compensation the Houthis offer -- as paltry as it is -- attractive enough for some families to consider sending their children to the battlefronts, economist Abdel Aziz Thabet told Al-Mashareq.

"The economic hardship and suspension of salaries for state employees for close to five years in Houthi-controlled areas have helped the group turn up the pressure on families," he said.

"Job opportunities are scarce, wages are low and the market has reached saturation with the unemployed as a result of the shutdown of businesses and private sector enterprises," he said.

Meanwhile, he said, two million children have dropped out of school, with many of them forced to enter the labour market.

Berman stressed the importance of the Marib battle to the Houthis.

"The Houthis see Marib as their final battle, because through [Marib] they would gain control over the northern provinces in general, not to mention the city's economic importance, by virtue of its oil and gas wealth," he said.

The Houthis are "willing to sacrifice all the children and men of Yemen in order to win the Marib battle", he said, noting that Marib city also stands as a symbol of resistance to the group and its backer, Iran.

The main headquarters of Yemen's Ministry of Defence are in Marib, and "all those who oppose the Houthis" are gathered there, Berman said, along with "those who have fled the Houthis' oppression and persecution".

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