In the video, a man stands in front of a blackboard in a full classroom and learns the parts of an AK-47 rifle. He then hands it over to a boy, and shows him how to hook it.
Other kids drum around, many apparently not older than 10, asking for their turn. The video, which was leaked online this month, provides a rare window into child soldier indoctrination by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Local residents confirmed to The Associated Press that it had been filmed in recent weeks in Yemen’s rebel-held province of Amran, northwest of the capital, Sanaa.
Despite an agreement with the UN in April to stop the practice, the Houthi continue to recruit children into the military ranks to fight in the country’s persistent civil war, Houthi officials, aid workers and residents told the Associated Press.
Two Houthi officials said the rebels had recruited several hundred children, including as young as 10 over the past two months. Those children were deployed to the front lines, as part of a build-up of forces taking place during a UN-mediated ceasefire, which lasted for more than two months, one official said.
The officials, both runners-up within the Houthi movement, said they saw nothing wrong with the practice and argued that boys aged 10 or 12 were considered men.
“These are not children. They are real men who must defend their nation against the Saudi-American aggression and defend the Islamic nation,” one of them said. The two spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid friction with others among the Houthi’s.
The Houthis used what they called “summer camps” to spread their religious ideology and to recruit boys to fight. Such camps take place in schools and mosques around the Houthi-controlled part of Yemen, which includes the north and center of the country and Sanaa.
Yemen’s conflict erupted in 2014 when the Houthis descended from their northern enclave and took over Sanaa, forcing the internationally recognized government to flee to the south. A Saudi-led coalition entered the war in early 2015 to try to restore the government to power, conduct a devastating air campaign and arm anti-Houthi forces.
The war killed more than 150,000 people, including more than 14,500 civilians, and plunged the country into near-famine, causing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
Child soldiers have been involved for years. Nearly 2,000 children recruited by Houthi were killed on the battlefield between January 2020 and May 2021, according to UN experts. Pro-government forces also used child fighters, but to a much lesser extent and took greater measures to stop the practice, according to UN and aid officials.
In general, the UN says more than 10,200 children were killed or maimed in the war, although it is unclear how many fighters were possible.
In April, the rebels signed what the UN Children’s Agency described as an “action plan” to end and prevent the practice. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the rebels had pledged to identify children in their ranks and release them within six months.
UNICEF and the Houthis have not responded to requests for comment on the continued recruitment since then.
Four aid workers with three international organizations working in rebel-held areas said they had observed intensified Houthi efforts to recruit children in recent weeks. The Houthi’s ranks were thinned out due to battlefield losses, especially during a nearly two-year-long battle for the crucial city of Marib.
The aid workers spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of their safety and that their groups may be banned from working in Houthi-controlled area.
They said the rebels had put families under pressure to send their children to camps where they would learn how to handle weapons and plant mines, in exchange for services, including food rations from international organizations.
One aid worker working in remote northern areas described how children as young as 10 manned checkpoints along the road, with AK-47s hanging on their shoulders. Others are sent to the front line. He said children had returned wounded from fighting at Marib.
Thousands of fighters have been killed in the government-controlled battle for Marib. The Houthi’s long-running effort to capture it was finally halted in late 2021 when government forces were strengthened by better-equipped fighters backed by the United Arab Emirates.
Abdel-Bari Taher, a Yemeni commentator and former head of the country’s Journalists’ Union, said the Houthi’s exploited local customs to the detriment of children and society. Having or carrying a weapon is a tradition that is deeply rooted in Yemen, especially in rural and mountainous communities, he said.
“It’s a source of pride and kind of masculinity for the boys,” he said.
The Houthi also provide essential food aid to children attending training camps, some say.
Two residents in Amran province said Houthi representatives came to their homes in May and told them to prepare their children for camps at the end of the school year. The residents, who are farmers, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
They said their five children, aged between 11 and 16, were taken to the school in late May where the video was taken. One father said he was told that if he did not send his children, his family would no longer receive food rations.
The UN panel of experts said earlier this year that the Houthis, a Zaidi-Shiite religious movement that has become a rebel militia with ties to Iran, have a system in place to indoctrinate child soldiers, including the use of humanitarian aid to help families. pressure.
Children are first taken to centers for a month or more of religious courses. They are told that they are joining a holy war against Jews and Christians and Arab countries that have succumbed to Western influence. Seven-year-olds are being taught how to clean weapons and how to dodge rockets, the experts found.
The Houthis have officially denied in the past that they called in children to fight.
But they also provided evidence to the contrary. A high-ranking Houthi, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, posted a video in early June of a visit he made to one of the camps in Dhamar province. It shows dozens of children in uniforms standing in a military-like formation declaring allegiance to the rebel movement’s top leader, Abdul-Malek al-Houthi.
“Soldiers or God,” they shouted. “We’re coming.”