The Forgotten Children of Yemen’s Conflict
In addition to air strikes, disease and hunger, children caught in the crossfire of Yemen’s civil war face another threat—being recruited as child soldiers
The plight of Yemen’s children is becoming a central humanitarian concern, yet it is often overlooked in the media as the war grinds on into its fourth year.
Before the civil war broke out in late 2015, Yemen, in general, and its children, specifically, had promising prospects of a better future. The country was considered a success story of the “Arab Spring” wave of revolutions that swept across the Middle East and North Africa beginning in 2010. Although the Yemeni people took to the streets to demand the resignation of Ali Abdullah Saleh, their longtime president who had been in office for over a decade, the protests did not result in massive and violent public unrest.
Following international pressure, Saleh eventually ceded power and left the country. He was succeeded by his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. But soon things became complicated. Saleh, a Shiite, re-emerged from exile and allied with armed groups belonging to Yemen’s Houthi Shiite minority in an effort to topple Hadi’s newly-elected government.
In early 2015, the Houthi rebels took over the capital Sana’a after fierce fighting with government forces. Hadi was forced to flee, first to the port city of Aden and later to Saudi Arabia. His loyalists, backed by Riyadh and other Gulf states, have been fighting the Houthis ever since, although the rebels still control the capital and areas in the country’s west. Efforts by the United Nations to broker a peace deal have failed.
Throughout the nation children face bleak conditions. Many have only seen battlefields and displacement shelters, while others, largely on the Houthi side, have been recruited for the war effort. Meanwhile, the UN has attributed blame to the Saudi-led coalition for most of the war’s child casualties, which the body claims have resulted from the relentless bombing of Houthi-held areas.
Many in the country have pointed the finger at United States and its western allies for exacerbating the plight of children in the country by supporting the Saudi-led coalition. “I think the Saudis wanted control of Yemen and the U.S. and Britain saw it as a way to help an ally while blaming the conflict on Iran,” J. Michael Springmann, a former U.S. diplomat stationed in Saudi Arabia, told The Media Line. “Also, war is good business for the U.S. and Europeans.”
In Springmann’s estimation, the West has indeed contributed to the suffering of children in the country. “Worst of all, they know it, based on what their diplomats, intelligence services, the media, the UN and human rights groups are telling them. But they don’t care,” he contended.
Thousands of Yemeni children have not been able to attend school and therefore easily fall into the clutches of those recruiting them to fight. Ali Humadi, a deputy in the Yemeni government’s Ministry of Social Affairs, claimed to The Media Line that Houthis have recruited more than 23,000 children, including 2,600 just in this year alone. Yet these numbers seem heavily inflated when compared to a 2016 UN report, which found that the Houthis were responsible for recruiting about two-thirds of some 575 child soldiers in Yemen.
“Houthis deprived more than 4.5 million children from registering at schools, destroyed 2,372 schools and used 1,500 others as prisons and military barracks,” Humadi conveyed to The Media Line.
Last week, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned that 11 million children in Yemen are in urgent need of basic humanitarian goods. At least 2,200 children have been killed since fighting erupted, and 3,400 have been injured, according to UNICEF.
Beyond children, a war-time high of 22.2 million Yemenis are in desperate need of food and aid, including 8.4 million who are facing starvation. The UN’s World Health Organization confirmed that around 400,000 children under the age of five are suffering from severe malnutrition.
Mohammed Ali, the father of a 13-year-old boy killed fighting alongside Houthi rebels in Hodeida, told The Media Line that he will forever be broken-hearted about his son’s death.
“One day a Houthi leader just took him, saying he was taking my son to an educational event in Sana’a. We tried to call him but his phone was turned off. After five days they brought us his dead body.
“They killed my son,” Ali lamented, “I did not know that he was going to fight on a battlefield. He never fired a weapon nor carried a gun.”
According to media and human rights organizations, Saudi-led air strikes have killed the most Yemeni civilians, including many children. A prominent Houthi official in Sana’a who did not want to be named contended to The Media Line that the coalition of Sunni Gulf states has killed more than 35,000 people and injured many more since it intervened militarily in the war in 2015.
Salah Mohamadi, a Houthi representative in Sana’a, told The Media Line that “thousands of children have also succumbed to diseases that could have been easily cured with more medical equipment and supplies.” He added that the Saudi-led coalition has kept many areas under siege. “If this continues, many Yemeni children will die.”
Mohamadi held the international community responsible for the predicament children in the country are facing. “Nations do nothing,” he asserted; this, despite the UN having repeatedly stressed that the fighting in Yemen is causing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.