Houthi Child Recruitment Survivors to Asharq Al-Awsat: We Were Lured by Money, Arms

Tuesday, 17 April, 2018 - 08:30 -

Houthi Child Recruitment Survivors to Asharq Al-Awsat: We Were Lured by Money, Arms

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Former child soldiers at a rehabilitation center in Yemen. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Jeddah - Asmaa al-Ghaberi
The Iran-backed Houthi militias have found in Yemeni children an easy target to recruit new members, especially amid the poverty and state of ignorance in remote villages. Children were lured by money, sometimes drugs, to join their ranks.

They succeeded in recruiting several children, who never dreamed of being caught in the crossfire of battle. The recruitment of minors used to take place by the Houthis in secret, but recently, the militias’ Minister of youth Hassan Zeid announced that schools will be shut for a year and students will be taken to the battlefronts.

Director of the Wethaq Foundation for Civil Orientation Najib al-Saadi told Asharq Al-Awsat that 2,561 child recruitment cases were recorded in 2017.

“The numbers are in fact much greater than this,” he said. Estimates put the number of child members in Houthi ranks at over 12,000.

The Foundation is a Yemeni organizations aimed at rehabilitating child soldiers and others affected by the war. It is funded and overseen by the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center.

Fear of everything

As Uday, 13, and his five friends were playing at a farm in his town of Habur Zulaymah, a stranger approached them under the pretense of making of a telephone call. He soon informed them that they could obtain weapons and a monthly salary if they join the Houthis.

Attracted by the idea, they followed him to a barracks, where they stayed for a week. The child grew scared and became even more so after he was taken to the battlefield along with several other children.

They were tasked with providing food and water to the fighters. Their crying did not soften the hearts of the militants, who ordered them to do as they were told.

Uday told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I was scared of everything, especially the adult fighters.”

“At one point, one of the children beside me was injured. He was soon treated, but another would take his place. This became a routine for an entire month.”

“I had my own automatic weapons. Even though I was happy with this possession, the fear that I would meet the same fate as my colleagues overcame everything else,” he added.

During one of many sleepless nights, a shell landed beside him. He and his bedmate were wounded by shrapnel. They were treated at a hospital and returned home. On his way home, he sold his weapon. Soon after, the Houthis came knocking on his door, demanding that he return the weapon or return to the battlefield.

Uday tried to escape, but failed. He was arrested and thrown in prison for a week. His uncle finally succeeded in freeing him, on condition that he return to the battlefield. He refused because he did not have a weapon. He was stricken with fear of punishment. He spent days on farms, unable to return home to his family.

The Houthis soon detained his uncle and Uday eventually fled to the city of Maarib.

His past still haunts him. His mind is unfocused and he has severe learning disabilities. The social and psychological rehabilitation process he underwent has helped him shed the crippling fear and dark thoughts prompted by the fighting. He has started to develop a sense of security.

Temptation of money and arms

When Nasser Mohammed Jashish, 14, asked permission from his father to spend a night out at a neighbor’s house in the al-Amran province, he never thought that it would be the beginning of months away from his family.

His neighbor promised him money and weapons if he joined the Houthis as one of their companions. The teen ultimately ended up as a security guard and recruit in the Shabwa province.

Nasser spent 15-days in Sanaa where he was trained on the use of light and medium arms, “which he dreamed of.” He believed that he would soon be able to return to his village and boast about his training.

During Ramadan, Nasser was witness to a bombing that left nine of his acquaintances dead. One of the deceased had lobbied for keeping him away from the battlefields.

This marked the beginning of his days on the battlefronts. Under threat, he was sent to a heated frontline, where he was abused on several occasions. Any act of insubordination was met with severe beating or death threats.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “On one occasion, my colleague was shot in the foot. They kept him bleeding in front of me. I was on the verge of tears. I prayed for death or that I had been killed with my colleagues in the bombing.”

In one night, he was tasked with providing fighters with ammunition. He refused the order and was slapped in the face. Out of fear of being punished and thrown in jail, he found himself in battle. His fear hindered him from fulfilling his task of sending ammunition to the fighters. He was met with more slaps and kicks.

Seeing his plight, one of his relatives sought to return him to Shabwa.

He was eventually returned. On one occasion, a fighter from another region ordered him to join the transfer process of a corpse to Sanaa. Nasser seized the opportunity to flee the hell of war and suffering.

He arrived at a military hospital in the capital and was reunited with locals from his village. He returned to his home, where his father smuggled him to Maarib, where he was reunited with his older brother.

He was treated at the Wethaq Foundation for Civil Orientation, which helped him shed his thoughts about death. He says that he is now almost back to his normal self and is ready to go back to school.

Bombing of mosques and looting

Sadeq joined the Houthis at the tender age of ten. Lured by money, he joined training camps in Sanaa and remote areas of al-Amran.

He had dropped out of school in the third grade and became addicted to smoking and the Qat narcotic shrub.

His early start with the Houthis saw him used in many missions, including the bombing of mosques and looting of properties. He took part in battle with the militias, starting from al-Amran.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat that he got a sense of euphoria from fighting with the group. He did not know how he got that feeling, whether it was out of his belief in their ideology or due to numbness. He explained that fighters were given various narcotic pills to rid them of their feelings and that made them forget everything.

They only thought about the battle and serving their leaders, he said.

He, along with a group of children, used to work on digging long trenches, especially in the al-Jawf region.

At one point, he discovered that his father had left his town and joined the legitimate government ranks in Maarib.

Sadeq told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I was excited about the Houthi thoughts and angry that my father joined what they called ISIS.”

The Houthis describe anyone who fights or opposes them as ISIS members, he said.

He soon contacted his father to berate and insult him for joining the legitimacy forces.

Sadeq is ashamed of his actions and said that he did it without thinking. He grows even more ashamed as he recalls how his father responded to his verbal abuse with kind words and affection.

The child soon realized the criminal reality of the Houthis and decided to distance himself from them, later undergoing rehabilitation at the Wethaq Foundation.