SANAA, Yemen — Abdullah Ali’s 15-year-old son disappeared from home one morning three months ago. A week later, the boy called his horrified family to say he had joined the Shiite insurgents known as Houthis — becoming one of a growing number of underage soldiers fighting in Yemen’s civil war.
“He’s just a child. He’s only in the ninth grade,” Ali, 49, a civil servant who lives in the city of Taiz, said recently. “He should be at school learning, not fighting.”
Hundreds and possibly thousands of boys are fighting in Yemen’s conflict, according to rights groups and aid workers. Many are between the ages of 13 and 16, the groups say. Experts cite worsening poverty in the Arabian Peninsula country as a major reason children are joining armed groups.
The child soldiers are found in nearly every faction battling in Yemen. According to some estimates, boys younger than 18 form nearly a third of the Houthi rebel force’s approximately 25,000 fighters.
Over the past year, the Houthis have swept southward from their northern strongholds, taking control of the capital, Sanaa, and besieging the southern port city of Aden. Since March, a coalition of mainly Arab states led by Saudi Arabia has been launching airstrikes to push back the rebels and restore President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power. As the war has intensified, dozens of child fighters are thought to have been killed.
Julien Harneis, the Yemen representative for UNICEF, said that warring factions, including the country’s al-Qaeda affiliate and southern separatists, appear to be increasing recruitment of minors, partly by offering money, regular meals and other benefits.
“Becoming a fighter is seen as a way to make money to survive for those children who come from vulnerable backgrounds,” Harneis said. “And this is happening in all groups, from the north to south, in every corner of the country.”
Food and fuel have become scarce for many of Yemen’s 25 million residents because of the battles and an air and naval blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition, according to the United Nations and aid groups. The turmoil has forced most schools to shut down, which in turn has enlarged the pool of potential child recruits.
Jalal al-Shami, a human rights activist in Yemen who studies the issue of underage soldiers, said that the worsening humanitarian situation is forcing more families to turn children into breadwinners.
“You have a rising problem now where fathers refuse to let their sons return from the fighting because the families have gotten dependent on the money that this brings in,” he said. In some cases, he said, a boy can earn over $100 a month — a sizeable sum in a country where, even before the current unrest, half the population lived on $2 a day or less.
Shami said that the long-term risks of participating in combat can be especially damaging to children. Psychological trauma can haunt them well into adulthood, causing depression and anti-social behavior, he added.
The use of child soldiers began to increase in Yemen during a series of wars between the government and the Houthis starting in 2004.
Then, in 2007, the government signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international accord that establishes 18 as the minimum age for young people to be conscripted or participate directly in hostilities as soldiers. Last year, Yemen also entered into an agreement with the United Nations to halt the recruitment of children by the armed forces.
But the Houthis toppled Hadi’s U.S.-backed government in February. Their offensive is prompting anti-Houthi forces — including the largely Sunni tribes in the south and in the oil-rich province of Marib, which is east of Sanaa — to increasingly turn to child reinforcements to fight back, said Nadwa al-Dawsari, an expert on Yemen’s tribes who is affiliated with the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington.
“Unlike places like Africa, this is a new trend in Yemen,” she said. Yemen is a tribal society where manhood is often associated with an ability to use a firearm, but children historically have not been allowed to fight, she said.
“The Houthi expansion is changing that,” Dawsari added.
Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, a member of the Houthi political office, did not deny that the group uses armed children for such things as operating checkpoints in cities like Sanaa. But he said that boys under 18 were not allowed to participate in battle.
“We are very careful when it comes to recruiting our fighters,” he said.
Diplomats, analysts and residents dispute that claim, however, citing the scrawny teenagers who are wielding AK-47s in Aden and on front lines elsewhere in the country.
In Sanaa, some young fighters said that they joined the Houthis because their friends did or because they were bored.
“There was nothing else for me to do,” said Ayman, 17, who guards a Houthi-controlled military installation and declined to give his last name. He earns about $3 a day, he said.
A woman known as Umm Kamal said she went to the Houthi headquarters in Sanaa last month to demand that her 17-year-old son Kamal return home. He had joined the militia six days earlier, without her permission, and was working as an armed guard, she said.
“This is not what I want for my son. He will not be a fighter because I want him to have a good future, to finish his education and live a good life,” she said.
Umm Kamal, who declined to give her full name, citing concern for her safety, said that the Houthis did not stop her son from quitting.
But there have been grenade attacks on the homes of some parents in the south of Yemen who have refused to allow their sons to join militias, according to Lisa Piper, the Yemen country director for the Danish Refugee Council.
Ali wonders whether his son Mohammed was drawn to the Houthis by their message — a blend of social justice, anti-imperialism and conservative Islam — or because of his family’s dire finances. Several months ago, men linked to the rebels began recruiting boys in his city of Taiz, holding out the prospect of making money and “becoming a man on the battlefield,” he said.
Mohammed has called the family only three times since he left, Ali said.
“He refused to come home, and he said that he’s fighting because it’s his mission to destroy the Islamic State and Takfiris,” he said. That is a reference to extremist Sunni groups that the Houthis consider mortal enemies. Mohammed himself is Sunni, but his father suspects that he may have been brainwashed by the Houthis, who follow an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Ali has no idea where his son is, or how to reach him. He just hopes that young Mohammed will come back alive.
“The thought of him coming home in a body bag is torturing us,” he said.
Naylor reported from Beirut.