For two years, Mohammed fought with Yemen’s Houthi rebels against a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States.
Mohamed says he tortured and killed people. He did not care whether he lived or died. But if he did die, the bracelet he wore with a “jihadi number” would guarantee his body made it home.
Mohammed is one of 18 former child soldiers who spoke with the Associated Press. All of them escaped from rebel forces or were captured by coalition units. They are now at camps and a counseling center in the city of Marib, in an area controlled by the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition.
Children recruited or forced to fight
Both sides in the four-year civil war have sent children into battle – a violation of international human rights conventions. The United Nations was able to confirm that 2,721 children have been recruited to fight for all sides in the conflict. A majority of them have fought for the Houthis. But officials say that number is likely low because many families are too fearful to speak out.
A senior Houthi military official admitted to the AP that the rebels have brought 18,000 child soldiers into their army since 2014. He did not wish to be named.
Officially, the Houthis say they do not recruit children and send away children who try to join. But in Sana'a, the Yemeni capital now under Houthi control, locals say the rebels go door to door telling parents they must either turn over their sons or pay money for the war effort.
Some of the former child soldiers told the AP they joined the rebels willingly because of promises of money or the chance to carry a weapon. But others described being taken from their schools or forced to join the Houthis in exchange for a family member’s release from detention.
Some children gave themselves a war name after they joined the fighting. One 10-year-old boy, for example, called himself Abu Nasr, Arabic for “Father of Victory.”
A 13-year-old boy named Saleh told the AP that Houthi fighters came to his home and demanded that he and his father come with them to the front lines of battle. He said his father was pulled away when he refused the order. Saleh added, “I heard the bullets, then my father collapsing dead.”
Joining the jihad
New recruits are usually taken first to “culture centers” for religious courses, which last about a month. They are told they are joining a holy war against Jews and Christians and Arab countries that have been influenced by the West. The boys are told that if they die fighting, they will go to heaven.
Mohammed said, “When you get out of the culture center, you don’t want to go home anymore. You want to go to jihad.”
The recruits are then sent to military training camps in the mountains. At night, they sleep in shelters made of tree branches. During the day, they learn how to fire weapons, plant explosives and avoid missiles fired by coalition airplanes.
After less than a month of military training, they are sent to war wearing the bracelets meant to promise to honor them as martyrs if they die. The children call the lettering on the bracelets their “jihadi number.”
Many child soldiers can be seen holding AK-47 machine guns at search areas along main roads in northern and western Yemen. Others are sent to the front lines as foot soldiers.
“He was my master”
Mohammed fought in and around the city of Taiz.
One day, the Houthis captured a coalition fighter. Mohamed was told to send electric shocks through the man’s body during questioning. When it was over, he said, his commander gave this order: “Get rid of him.”
Mohammed said he took a heavy metal tool, heated it with fire, and then hit the back of the man’s head. “He was my master,” Mohammed said. “If he says kill, I would kill.... I would blow myself up for him.”
A 13-year-old named Riyadh said he and his 11-year-old brother once shot and killed two enemy soldiers. But more often, he said, he closed his eyes when he fired his gun. “Honestly, when I am afraid, I don’t know where I am shooting — sometimes in the air and sometimes just randomly,” he said.
Riyadh said half of the fighters he served with on the front lines were children. He said he asked his commander to let them take cover during airstrikes: “Sir, the planes are bombing.” The commander’s answer, he said, was always: “Followers of God, you must attack!”
Twelve-year-old Kahlan joined the rebels with the promise of a new book bag for school. He and the other boys had no clothes other than their school uniforms, he said. They were so dirty that many developed skin problems.
Thousands have died
The United Nations says more than 6,000 children have died or been injured in Yemen since the beginning of the war. But the organization does not know how many of them died as fighters. The Houthis do not release their records.
A former teacher from Dhamar said that at least 14 students from his school were recruited. They later died in battle. Their photographs were put on empty classroom seats in February of 2016 during the Week of the Martyr. Most of them were fifth and sixth graders, the teacher said. An education official from Dhamar confirmed the story. The teacher and official did not want to be identified out of fear.
The teacher said some of the dead children’s parents were Houthi leaders who willingly sent their sons to the front lines. “It’s painful because this is a child and they are all my children because I was their teacher,” he said. “They were taken from the school and returned in coffins.”
General Yahia Sarie is a spokesman for the Houthis’ armed forces. He told the AP “there is no general policy to use the children in the battles,” but he admitted that some young people do volunteer to join the fight.
He dismissed the claims from the children who spoke to the AP, calling their stories coalition propaganda.
Coming back to society
Mohammed, Riyadh and Kahlan all ended up at the center in Marib that helps children who served as Houthi soldiers. Since September 2017, almost 200 boys have come through the center.
The Wethaq Foundation for Civil Orientation created the center. It is funded with Saudi money.
Mayoub al-Makhlafi is the center’s psychiatrist. He said all the former child soldiers suffer from anxiety, panic attacks and other problems. Some describe being beaten by their own commanders. Others talk about being sexually abused by officers.
Naguib al-Saadi is a Yemeni human rights activist. He said, “The real problem with Houthi recruitment of children will be felt in 10 years — when a generation that has been brainwashed with hatred…toward the West comes of age.”
I'm Bryan Lynn. And I'm Ashley Thompson.
Maggie Michael reported this story for the Associated Press. Hai Do adapted the story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
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Words in This Story
bracelet - n. a piece of jewelry worn on the wrist
martyr - n. a person who is killed for a religion
recruit - v. to persuade someone to join a company, organization or armed forces
heaven - n. the place where good people go after they die according to some religions
jihad - n. a war fought by Muslims to defend or spread their beliefs
randomly - adv. in a way that does not follow a plan or pattern
coffin - n. a box in which a dead person is buried
anxiety - n. fear or nervousness about what might happen
panic - n. a feeling of extreme fear that makes someone unable to act or think normally
brainwash - v. to cause someone to think or believe something by using methods that make a person unable to think normally