Wednesday 23 January 2019

The 2,100 child soldiers forced to fight in Yemen war

'More than 80pc of the population needs aid. There's no food, there's no fuel, no electricity'

A doctor and a child victim of an air strike on the outskirts of Saada, Yemen, last week. Photo: Naif Rahma/Reuters
A doctor and a child victim of an air strike on the outskirts of Saada, Yemen, last week. Photo: Naif Rahma/Reuters

Ben Farmer

Abdul Fateh's childhood ended two years ago as he walked home from school. Houthi rebels had seized his home city, Amran, leaving him and his family under the control of the rebel militia, which had quickly swept across Yemen.

As he and three friends walked back from lessons, an armed pickup truck pulled alongside. The boys were ordered to join the group of similar schoolboys sitting in the back. If they did not, the fighters threatened to attack the boys' homes. Overnight the slight 14-year-old was to go from schoolboy to one of thousands of child soldiers pressed into Yemen's civil war.

More than three years after the Houthi movement drove President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi's government from much of Yemen, the war has plunged what was already one of the Arab world's poorest countries into catastrophe.

Yemen is the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations, with 22 million needing aid and more than 10,000 dead, at least half of them civilians.

The Houthi Shia rebel movement is facing a Saudi-led coalition trying to prop up the remnants of President Hadi's government with military aid and air strikes.

With the Houthi receiving support from Iran, including short-range ballistic missiles that have been fired at Saudi Arabia, Yemen has also been dragged into the regional rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran. The country is a tangle of largely static front lines, which have choked the country's economy, split families and cut off food, medicine and fuel. Both sides are accused of indiscriminate shelling or bombing, killing thousands of civilians caught in the middle and sending millions fleeing. On these front lines the UN late last year said it had documented at least 2,100 child soldiers, mostly in the ranks of the Houthi, but also in militia used by the Yemeni government.

Abdul Fateh had told his captors from the start that he did not want to fight, but any defiance was met with beatings from a rubber hose. "They said we are going to train you to use weapons," he said at a centre that tries to rehabilitate child soldiers in Marib. "I said I didn't want to, but they said we will make you a man."

Children who have escaped say they went through a mix of intense religious indoctrination and weapons training. After being taught how to use assault rifles, Abdul was sent to face government troops in the western area of Hudaydah in 2016. He was told he would not fight at first and instead was to fetch and carry, making sure ammunition was ferried to Houthi fighters at the front. His supply job did not shield him from the horrors of the conflict though.

He saw one fellow child soldier hit by a rocket-propelled grenade yards from him. "He was next to me and it exploded him to pieces," he said.

Another boy, Riad Khalid Monnasr, now aged 15, who was also taken from Amran in 2016, said he and his teenage comrades had another grisly duty when he was posted to a mountainous front close to Marib. The youngest soldiers scoured the battlefield for the dead and wounded. Anyone injured who looked senior enough to fetch a ransom would be carried off. Everyone else was finished off where they lay.

Abdul's chance to escape came one day when the truck he was travelling in was hit by artillery and the driver killed, and he was able to flee.

Trying to deal with the aftermath of such experiences falls to Nabila Ali Al Hamadi, a teacher at a nearby girls' school who advises at the Saudi-funded centre. "They can be violent to each other, they suffer from bad dreams and some just won't listen to anyone," Mrs Hamadi explained.

"Sometimes when I see these children and have had to assess them, I have had to stop the interviews and go outside and cry."

Marib is a rare place of security in the country since the Houthi were beaten back from its outskirts two years ago and Saudi Patriot batteries put in place to screen it from missiles. The governorate has become a safe haven for many of the Yemenis who have fled their homes, and its population has increased five-fold to 2.2 million.

The wealthiest refugees have brought their money and it has the air of a boom town. The market is full of palettes of cement and new, grey, breeze block homes are being built. A few camps have sprung up on the outskirts, but most refugees have been absorbed into relatives' homes.

With the area free of Houthi and the nearest front line almost 90 miles west, Marib's residents are also spared the coalition air strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians and been denounced by the UN. On the front line in the unforgiving Al Fardah mountains, Brig Abdullah Mohammed Moazib said coalition air strikes had supported his advance. "Yes, we and the coalition have made some mistakes and civilians have been killed," he said. "We take full responsibility for it. There's no war without mistakes."

Beyond the haven of Marib, the country's plight is grim. Cholera, diphtheria and measles are stalking the country. Hospitals and clinics have no medicines. Stung by accusations that it was exacerbating Yemen's suffering by blockading ports to stem the flow of weapons to the Houthi, Riyadh in January announced more than £1bn of aid as well as money to prop up the currency.

Riyadh says all ports are now open to aid, including the Houthi-controlled Hudaydah and Saleef docks closest to many of those in need. Aid agencies complain of delays and it being creamed off into the black market. Charities are also sceptical of how aid will be shared with Houthi areas where the majority of Yemenis live.

Mirella Hodeib, of the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Houthi-held capital of Sana'a, said: "More than 80pc of the population is in need of aid. There's no food, no fuel and there's no electricity."

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