On his first day as a soldier, Mohammed Dahan, 13, was excited about the new toys he was given: an MP3 player loaded with spare batteries, a backpack full of snacks, a hand grenade, and a Kalashnikov. Talking from his new hometown of Marib, he was filled with fond memories of training alongside his comrades-in-arms and the war songs they sang together: “Our morale is high, and our enemy is dead on his stomach.” The Houthi militia had sent him to the frontlines to “fight the Zionists and Americans’ brute force in Yemen.” Before enlisting with the militia, Mohammed had never carried a weapon in his life.
Between 2016 and 2017, the United Nations reported a “five-fold increase in cases of recruitment and use of children by armed groups.”
72 percent of the 762 cases of child soldier recruitment they examined were attributed to the Houthis, followed by pro-government popular committees, which accounted for 15 percent of all recruitments, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) with 9 percent.
Local reports by a Yemeni non-government organization, al-Wethaq Foundation for Civic Orientation, specializing in rehabilitating child soldiers in Yemen, cited 2561 cases of recruitment, and 625 deaths of child soldiers, 50% of the cases they studied were below the age of 15.
The Iranian-backed Houthi militia has been much like the pied piper, leading children into conflict under the false pretense of protecting them from greater threats. Since the Houthis marched to Sana’a in late 2014 – overthrowing the government of President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi, an increasing numbers of child soldiers between the ages of 8 and 17 have been recorded all over Yemen.
Indeed, children form an indispensable part of the Houthi militia. They are enthusiastic, quick, agile, and easier to equip with food and resources, which make them desirable recruits. The militia utilized them during all six wars against the government of Yemen between 2004 and 2010. As they expanded across Yemen, children played a key role in guiding them through cities and providing critical information that aided in bolstering the effectiveness of the combat.
The Houthis recruited Mohammed from Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city.
“They had a checkpoint near my house, and I would hang out with them when I was bored,” he said. He befriended the appointed Houthi mushref (supervisor) in his neighborhood, a local broker for the militias who eventually convinced Mohammed to join the Houthis: “They were friendly, really friendly at first,” he recalled.
“The children were abducted either from their home or school.”
According to the 2020 UN Panel of Experts report on Yemen, cases they investigated indicated that “the children were abducted either from their home or school.” In one case, “the child was lured away from his home by Houthis who told him he was going to participate in a three-day educational camp.”
Some children from tribal areas in the Houthi’s home province of Sa’ada, join to take tha’ar (revenge) for their fellow tribesmen. Sa’ada tribes also showcase their support by organizing special school recruitment days for the Houthis. While participation in these drives is voluntary, tribal members send their children to fight if the tribal leadership agrees to hold a nafeer (mobilizing for battle).
Unfortunately, for many families, volunteering is about survival. Before 2014, Yemen’s economy was frail. Now it has collapsed. The Houthis pay child soldiers between twenty and thirty thousand Yemeni riyals (approximately $100 to $150 US dollars) every month plus a matching bonus twice a year.
Moreover, Yemen’s tribal culture has played a role in normalizing this behavior, especially in rural areas where tribal feuds occur and young males as well as women are expected to protect themselves to survive. But the pursuit of children was not in self-defense. Children were used to solidify Houthis’ rule and help them expand. This attitude towards children is deeply instituted in the mindset of the militia and often encouraged. Houthis’ Minister of Youth has formerly expressed that “recruiting children is desirable when schools are not in session.”
Such statements and the continuous horrific images of dead children that appear on social media prompted its leader, Abdelmalek al-Houthi, to issue a decree on January 5, 2018 forbidding the printing of pictures of dead child soldiers below 15 years of age in order to control the Houthi image and hide the issue from the public eye.
After joining the Houthis, Mohammed was taken to Sa’ada for a “cultural tour.” Once there, he never saw the mushref again.
His “cultural tour,” was in reality a period of religious indoctrination and military training. Houthis follow the Jaroudi sect of Zaidism, a Yemeni Islamic current which professes that only Zaydi descendants of Prophet Mohammed have a right to rule. Although not all recruits are Zaidis and not all Zaidis consider themselves Shi’a, Jaroudi Zaidis follow Shi’a history. “They taught us about Fatima, the daughter of the prophet, and Ali, the cousin of the prophet, and things like that,” Mohammed said.
Many child soldiers choose to fight to the death rather than surrender.
Recruits are told that their enemies, Yemen’s army and the Saudi Coalition, are actually bloodthirsty Salafis (Sunni fundamentalists) and ISIS terrorists that “will slaughter them with machetes and burn them alive if they are captured.” And so, many child soldiers choose to fight to the death rather than surrender.
Mohammed and his friends did train. They received unique kinaya (nicknames), like Abu Sakr (father of the hawk) and Abu Raad (father of thunder), a custom common among adult males (who take their eldest son’s first name following “father of”). He recalled moving frequently, “often training in schools,” to avoid coalition airstrikes.
Within his first year with the Houthis, Mohammed had fought in Sirwah, East Taiz, and around Amran. “I was lucky; I only have shrapnel wounds on my leg,” he said.
Houthis also encouraged Mohammed and his friends to use locally consumed drugs and supplied good quality Qat—a potent, commonly used narcotic in Yemen—and chewing tobacco known as Shamma, which has been linked to high-risk of oral cancer. They also used their MP3 players to listen to battle songs called Zwamel, which are upbeat tribal songs, blasting lyrics like: “Go tell the Jews and al-Saud that hell will meet tyrants!” Mohammed loved it. “With Sa’ada qat in your mouth, and zwamel in your ears, you can do anything!”
Although the mushref told him he would return to his neighborhood after the cultural tour, Mohammed was sent to fight on the front lines. He and his friends cooked, cleaned, retrieved bodies, and acted as guides. They also worked as snipers, spotters, regular soldiers, and artillerymen.
Mohammed and his friends cooked, cleaned, retrieved bodies, and acted as guides. They also worked as snipers, spotters, regular soldiers, and artillerymen.
On one occasion, Mohammed saw his unit commander fire warning shots at two friends who tried to retreat from battle. He doesn’t let on whether this encounter fazed him. But air attacks terrified him. “There is nothing you can do when drones approach,” he said nervously. “We try to find a ditch and hide.” Other child recruits clutch folded paper talismans inscribed with holy words and numbers to protect themselves from missiles.
Children who fall in battle are paraded to dedicated martyrs’ cemeteries where they are buried in green cloth-covered wood coffins and placed in brick tombs covered with fresh flowers and green grass. If there is no body to bury, the Houthis substitute a photograph in an empty coffin. Green-framed pictures adorned with white flowers are hung around the neighborhood. If the child was a “volunteer,” his parents may receive food baskets or small sums of money. Houthis spends millions of riyals promoting this martyrdom culture.
Combatting the tragic phenomenon
Child recruitment is not effectively tackled in Yemen despite numerous pleas from citizens and Yemeni local organizations to pressure Houthis to end their practice. Saudi Arabia created a child protection unit at the coalition headquarters and funds efforts in Yemen to work on rehabilitating child soldiers, which was criticized by the New York Times as a propaganda outlet for the Saudis.
“Unfortunately, there is no real interest in the phenomenon of child recruitment and the adoption of programs to rehabilitate children.”
“Unfortunately, there is no real interest in the phenomenon of child recruitment and the adoption of programs to rehabilitate children,” said Najeeb al-Saidi, head of Wethaq. He also emphasized building awareness on the need for trauma healing, as Yemeni society still ostracizes rehabilitation and mental illness.
Moreover, despite rhetoric to combat the phenomenon, child soldiers were reported to be part of Yemen’s government army, with recruits as young as 15. According to interviews with an official who wishes to remain anonymous: “some of the children would enlist in the army because they see it as a source of income, and not many officers would turn them away.”
The Yemeni government, which frequently criticizes the Houthis for their practice, haven’t exactly articulated any measures to remove underage soldiers. “We do not actively seek children like the Houthis, we just do not have the ability to enforce regulations when many of the recruits do not know their age,” the official said.
Sadly, the United Nations’ Special Envoy who had initially promised to tackle this issue in peace talks, has de-prioritized the issue of Child Soldiers completely. This is likely because of its importance to the Houthi militia, which could complicate or stifle the talks. As a result, Yemeni children are voiceless in the face of such recruitment and indoctrination.
Luckily, Mohammed is now trying to open a new chapter in his life. He has been trained and integrated into a school in Marib. His favorite subjects are the Quran and Math. His gratitude for being alive is painfully masked with the trauma of the conflict he experienced.
“I don’t know how I am alive still, but it must be by the grace of my family’s prayers.”
“I don’t know how I am alive still, but it must be by the grace of my family’s prayers,” he said.
When asked whether his family were Shia or Sunni, he paused for a few seconds and said, “They are neither really. . .they are just civilians.”