Child soldiers are casualties of Yemen's barbaric conflict
Leaning against a battered truck in the streets of Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Rashad Hussein Naser fingers his assault rifle with a boyish smile. "It is a duty for anyone now to carry a gun and defend his country," he says.
Rashad is 15, and, like many other boys, has joined fighters resisting the Houthi militia, a rebel movement whose capture of Sana'a has started a war that has engulfed the Arab world's poorest country and drawn its neighbours into a campaign of aerial bombardment.
Children make up a third of the fighters in Yemen's war, according to Unicef. Countless others spend sleepless nights cowering under their beds.
More than 600 people have been killed, dozens of them children, since Saudi-led air strikes began on March 26. Their bombs are targeting positions belonging to the Houthis, who began their insurgency in northern Yemen but joined forces with the ousted former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to seize Sana'a, then much of the rest of Yemen's west. The country's internationally backed president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has been forced into exile. International organisations count anyone under 18 as a child, meaning there are many on both sides of the conflict. At a Houthi checkpoint in Bani Hushaish, 12 miles from Sana'a, teenage fighters said they were volunteers. "I am not coming for money, I am coming to defend my country," Ahmed Saleh (16) said. He said his family had donated money to the Houthi cause so other boys could join the fight.
The Houthis, like many groups in Yemen, have a history of recruiting child fighters, some as young as 10. Yemeni culture is deeply rooted in tribal traditions and it is common for boys to take up arms at a young age.
Yemen is one of only eight countries whose state militaries include children, according to the UN. Save the Children said half of all boys over 12 had been caught up in the conflict. Many of these fighters have been deployed in Yemen's streets. Some have joined the battle for Aden, where the fighting has been at its fiercest. Doctors said young bodies had littered the streets. "There are corpses still lying there, nobody can evacuate them," said Rami Bele'ed, an official at the city's Al-Jomhoria Hospital.
In Aden, several young fighters have gone missing, apparently captured by their rivals. Several Aden residents described young fighters being put on trucks. "Most of them don't know what they are doing - they say their master has told them they will go to heaven," said a human rights activist. Although the conflict stems from a complex set of local grievances, it has become a proxy battleground for Saudi Arabia and Iran, which backs the Houthis. (© Daily Telegraph, London)