On the outskirts of Sana’a, specifically in Jaref area, the Yemen Times has witnessed many young Houthis at checkpoints since Sept. 21 who appear to be children. Wearing military jackets on top of their thawbs (traditional one-piece garment) and carrying their weapons—decorated with Houthi stickers—they search cars and question passengers.
Standing tall and speaking with authority like hardened veterans, these young Houthis display great pride and prestige. Still, at most checkpoints they are accompanied by an older man, who is more experienced at handling security situations and dealing with civilians.
A Yemen Times journalist passed by three checkpoints in Jaref, each comprising what appeared to be armed children. However, all were prevented from talking to the journalist by the men in charge of these checkpoints.
Around Friday prayer time, the Yemen Times reporter arrived at a fourth checkpoint without any adult Houthi member. Instead, it was manned by two youth—one appeared to be around 13 and the other around 15.
After several smiles and gestures one of the boys manning the checkpoint came over. The boy, Mohammad Al-Razhi, looked 12 or 13 but said he was 15. He talked to the Yemen Times briefly, explaining his role and motivation for joining the Houthis.
“I studied in school until the 8th grade [in Sa’ada]. But when master Abdulmalik Al-Houthi made his righteous call to us to protect the country we answered vigorously. We want to save our country from the takfiris who defamed Islam and toyed with the country for many years, using their twisted religion and baseless lies,” said Al-Razhi.
The term “takfiri” describes uncompromising Muslims who accuse other Muslims of apostasy as soon as they express different religious opinions. In this case, Al-Razhi is using the term to refer to the Islah Party and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Al-Razhi describes his support of the Houthis as a “religious duty,” explaining that he loves Abdulmalik Al-Houthi as he is charismatic and “God has empowered him to amend life and religion in Yemen.”
Like most armed children working for the Houthis, Al-Razhi is a supporter but not a combatant.
“I did not fight in battles with the group. My role is merely to protect and guard some areas. I have not been trained and I do not have the military expertise that qualifies me to fight,” Al-Razhi said. However, describing himself as a “young jihadist with the group,” Al-Razhi did admit that he and other children thought they might be required to fight when joining the Houthis.
Although Al-Razhi would not talk about whether he gets paid for his services, he said he feels “very comfortable regarding food, sleep, and working hours.”
“As soon as my shift ends, which is six hours, I go to a designated home nearby where we [he and other Houthi members] live,” he said.
Al-Razhi, who has three older brothers fighting for the Houthis, said he wants to become a judge in the future. He said he wants to continue studying and that justice is what Yemen needs.
“In case things calm down, I will go back to school in Sa’ada. I will study as hard as I can. But I do not want to go to school and ignore my religious duty [to support the Houthis],” he said. “I could go back to school if the group does not need me anymore.”
A report by the UN Secretary-General issued on May 15, 2014, states that since the beginning of the transition process in Yemen the UN has verified 32 different cases of boys manning Houthi checkpoints, carrying firearms, and inspecting vehicles in Sa’ada and Amran governorates. The Secretary-General noted that “one boy, 11 years old, reported having received two months of military and ideological training.”
Speaking to the Yemen Times, Hussein Al-Bukhaiti, a prominent Houthi activist and member, denied that the Houthis use members under the age of 18 in combat roles. He said those who are engaged in direct combat for the group have gone through extensive training to prepare them for fighting.
However, he admitted there are armed Houthis under the age of 18 being used in certain supportive roles for the group, such as manning checkpoints. Al-Bukhaiti explained that it is not a Houthi policy to actively recruit children. Instead, Houthi members are essentially self-organizing and volunteering in many neighborhoods—some younger family members, below 18, might just join in.
Al-Bukhaiti said he was not aware of any measures the group is taking to prevent those under 18 from arming themselves and taking on security roles. In his view, it is up to the parents of those children and the Houthis in charge of checkpoints or neighborhoods, to prevent them from joining. Many armed groups recruit children
While numerous governments and international agencies condemn the Houthis’ use of children, the group is by no means unique in this respect.
A US State Department report, titled “Yemen 2013 human rights report,” states that “although law and policy expressly forbid the practice, persons under age 18 reportedly directly participated in armed conflict during the year for government, tribal, and militant forces, primarily as guards and couriers.”
“Reports indicated underage recruits in military uniforms were seen on a regular basis manning military checkpoints and carrying weapons. The popular committee in the Abyan governorate used boys between the ages of 13 and 17 to guard checkpoints, and NGOs reported that children were recruited in Sa’ada by both Houthi and Salafi factions,” the report reads.
Children were also found to have been recruited by AQAP in Abyan, and by the Islah Party and the Popular Committees fighting AQAP in Abyan. Moreover, children continued to be used in support roles by the Yemeni Armed Forces in 2013.
The “Situation analysis of children in Yemen 2014,” an annual report put out by the UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF), supports these statements, saying that the Houthis, AQAP, and the government of Yemen “are on the United Nations Annex I list of parties that ‘recruit or use children’ in armed conflict.”
Ahmed Rashad Al-Aqhali, a member of Children’s Parliament, confirmed that “Ansar Allah [the Houthis] are not the only group who recruit children; some army units as well as Hirak [the Southern Movement] did the same thing, which led international organizations working in the field of child welfare to try to include Yemen in the ‘list of shame.’”
The so-called “list of shame” is a list of parties who “recruit and use children, kill and maim, commit sexual violence, or attack schools and hospitals,” according to the UN’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.
Al-Aqhali explained that the Children’s Parliament, in cooperation with Future Leaders—a group comprised of previous Children’s Parliament members—launched an awareness project about the dangers of recruiting children in all Yemeni governorates. The project was conducted under the supervision of the Sana’a-based Democratic School, an organization which supports children’s safety.
“Recruiting is not exclusive during times of war, many sheikhs have recruited children to be their escorts to provide protection. We have targeted the districts in which there are high levels of child recruitment,” said Um Kolthom Al-Shami, the children’s program manager in the Democratic School.
According to the US State Department 2013 report on Yemen, “abject poverty and high rates of unemployment were the root causes of child soldier recruitment. Child recruits often received money and food in exchange for military service, whereas a child attending school might be perceived as a financial burden to his or her family.”Tweet