A 17-year-old boy with his AK-47 in High Dam in Marib. Experts say child soldiers are “the firewood” in the inferno of Yemen’s civil war, trained to fight, kill and die on the frontlines. Image Credit: AP

Marib: At the age of 13, Mohammad was an unflinching fighter for Yemen’s Al Houthi rebels. Indoctrinated in their camps, he went into battle even as gunfire filled the air and the earth shook from air strikes. He says he tortured and killed. He didn’t care if he lived or died.

His one comfort was the serial number on the bracelet the Al Houthis gave him to wear - his “jihadi number.”

If he died, he knew, the bracelet guaranteed his body would make it home to his family.

“When I become a martyr, they enter my number in the computer, retrieve my picture and my name, then print them with the name ‘Martyr’ underneath,” Mohammad said. It would be pasted to the lid of his coffin for return to his family.

Mohammad was among 18 former child soldiers interviewed by The Associated Press who described Al Houthis’ efficiency in recruiting boys as young as 10 to fight in the war against a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States.

For two years Mohammed fought with Yemen's Houthi rebels against a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States. He says he tortured and killed people and didn't care whether he lived or died

Astounding number

The Al Houthis have inducted 18,000 child soldiers into their army since the beginning of the war in 2014, a senior Al Houthi military official acknowledged to The Associated Press. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the information.

That figure is higher than any number previously reported.

Abdel Hamid, a 14-year-old former child soldier, tasked by Houthi rebel to carry supplies to other fighters in the high mountains, he says he saw children get shot for not obeying orders. He said the front-lines are full of children. Image Credit: AP

More than 6,000 children have died or been maimed in the war, the UN children’s agency reported in October, but it could not determine how many were combatants.

The AP interviewed former child soldiers at a displacement camp and a Saudi-funded rehabilitation center in the city of Marib, which is controlled by the coalition.

They came to Marib after slipping away from rebel forces or being captured by coalition units.

Because of their ages and because some acknowledge committing acts of brutality, the AP is only using their first names.

18000

children so far recruited by rebels

Some of the children told the AP they joined the rebels willingly, mainly because of promises of money or the chance to carry a weapon. But others described being forced into the service of the Houthis - abducted from schools or homes or coerced into joining in exchange for a family member's release from detention.

Children forced to fight in Yemen’s civil war are often left traumatized, acting out aggressively and having panic attacks, some still bearing the mental scars from indoctrination by Houthi rebels who taught them to kill and die in a “holy war.” Image Credit: AP

The war began after Al Houthis, a Zaidi-Shiite insurgent movement with ties to Iran, swept down from the northern highlands in late 2014, seizing the capital, Sana’a, and then pushing south.

Yemen’s internationally-recognised government sought help from Saudi Arabia, which formed the coalition with US backing, determined to stop what they saw as an Iranian move to take over, turning a civil war into a proxy war.

Many can be seen manning checkpoints along main roads across northern and western Yemen, AK-47s dangling from their narrow shoulders. Others are sent to the front lines as foot soldiers.

A 13-year-old named Riyadh said half of the fighters he served with on the front lines in Yemen's mountainous Sirwah district were children. Rebel officers ordered them to push forward during battles, even as coalition jets zoomed overhead, he said.

He said he pleaded with his commander to let the young fighters take cover during airstrikes: "Sir, the planes are bombing."

The reply, he said, was always: "Followers of God, you must attack!"

Others are sent to the front lines as foot soldiers.

Abducted from schools

But others described being abducted from schools or homes or coerced into joining in exchange for a family member’s release from detention.

Recruits are taken first to “culture centers” for nearly a month of religious courses.

Sadek, a 14 year-old former child soldier, poses for a photograph at a camp for displaced persons where he took shelter with his family, in Marib, Yemen. Image Credit: AP

The children are told they are joining a holy war against Jews and Christians and Arab countries that have succumbed to Western influence.

Next, the recruits are sent to military training camps, and then to war.

“When you get out of the culture center, you don’t want to go home anymore,” Mohammad said. “You want to go to jihad.”

14 year-old Abdel Hamid, second right, and 14 year-old Morsal, third right, sit at a camp for displaced persons where they took shelter . Abdel-Hamid says he saw children get shot for disobeying orders. Morsal suffered partial hearing loss from explosions and airstrikes. Image Credit: AP

A former teacher from the city of Dhamar said that at least 14 pupils from his school were recruited and then died in battle. Their pictures were placed on empty classroom seats in 2016 during the Week of the Martyr, which the Houthis celebrate each year in February. Most of them were fifth and sixth graders, he said. An education official from Dhamar confirmed his account. The two spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retribution.

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."

The Houthis and the coalition forces began peace talks in Sweden two weeks ago, but an end to the war appears far off. Many worry about what will become of the children who fought in the Middle East's poorest country once a peace treaty is signed.

The Recruits

Naguib Al Saadi, a Yemeni human rights activist who founded a Saudi-funded counseling center in Marib for child warriors, said "the real problem with Houthi recruitment of the children will be felt in 10 years - when a generation that has been brainwashed with hatred and enmity toward the West comes of age."

New recruits are usually taken first to "culture centers" for religious courses lasting nearly a month. Instructors read aloud to the children from the lectures of the Houthi movement's founder, Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, the late brother of the current leader, Abdul-Malek al-Houthi.

The recruits are then sent to military training camps in the mountains, according to several children who defected from the Houthis. By night, they sleep in tents or huts made of tree branches. By day, they learn how to fire weapons, plant explosives and avoid missiles fired by coalition jets.

From noon to sunset, the young soldiers get a daily share of the green leaves of qat, a mild stimulant that the vast majority of Yemenis chew every day. Coming from poor families, having qat is an incentive for the children, who might not be able to afford it at home.

After less than a month of boot camp, they are sent to war, wearing the bracelets that are supposed to ensure that, if they die, they are returned to their families and honored as martyrs.

The children call the inscription their "jihadi number." Critics of the Houthis sardonically call the bracelets the children's "key for heaven."

Once in the battle zones, some children said, their weapons and their beliefs made them feel powerful. Others just felt frightened.

Mohammed fought in and around the city of Taiz, the scene of the war's longest running battle.

Trained in torture

Mohammad recalled how one day his comrades fighting in the city of Taiz captured a coalition fighter and brought him to a bombed-out restaurant.

Mohammad, 14 at the time, said he hooked an electrical generator up to the prisoner and sent shocks through the man’s body as his commander interrogated the captive.

200

boys treated at rehabilitation centre

Finally, his commander gave this order: “Get rid of him.” Mohammad said he took a heavy metal tool, heated it in a flame, then swung it, caving in the back of the man’s head.

“He was my master,” Mohammad said of his commander. “If he says kill, I would kill.... I would blow up myself for him.”

The Marib rehabilitation center has treated nearly 200 boys since September 2017. They suffer from aggressive behavior, panic attacks and attention deficits. Naguib Al Saadi, founder of the organisation that launched the center, said the real problem will be felt in 10 years - “when a generation that has been brainwashed with hatred and enmity toward the West comes of age.”

Riyadh, the 13-year-old who fought in the Sirwah mountains, said he and his 11-year-old brother once shot and killed two enemy soldiers who had refused to lay down their weapons. But more often, he said, he closed his eyes tightly when he fired his rifle.

"Honestly, when I am afraid, I don't know where I am shooting - sometimes in the air and sometimes just randomly," he said.

The most frightening moment came when his brother disappeared during a firefight.

"I was crying," Riyadh recalled. "I told the commander that my brother had been martyred."

He began turning over corpses on the battlefield, searching bloodied faces for his lost brother when he and other fighters came under fire. They fired back. Then, after some yelling back and forth, he realized the shooter was not an enemy fighter but his brother, lost in the fog of battle.

A few weeks later, Riyadh and his brother escaped, paying a truck driver to smuggle them away from the Houthi forces.

Boys recite poems during a session at a rehabilitation center for former child soldiers in Marib Image Credit: AP

Kahlan - the schoolboy who had been lured into combat with the promise of a new book bag - was first assigned to carry boxes of food and ammunition for soldiers. Then he was deployed to fight. He and the other boys had no clothes other than their school uniforms, he said. They were so filthy many sprouted skin rashes.

Coalition aircraft screeched overhead, dropping bombs and firing missiles at Houthi positions. Afterward, trucks rumbled in to collect the dead.

"The sight of the bodies was scary," Kahlan recalled, using his hands to pantomime how corpses were missing heads or limbs or had their intestines oozing out.

He slipped away from the Houthi camp early one morning, running from one village to another. "I was afraid to look back. I saw trees and rocks and I got more scared because they used to hide behind the trees."

'Listening Sessions' 

Mohammed, Riyadh and Kahlan all ended up in Marib, at a rehabilitation center for children who served as Houthi soldiers. Since September 2017, nearly 200 boys have come through the center, which was founded by the Wethaq Foundation for Civil Orientation and funded with Saudi money.

Houthi rebels took Kahlan and his classmates, promising to give them new school bags, but instead they were enlisted and trained as fighters tasked with carrying supplies to the front lines. There, he had to elude explosions and airstrikes that left mangled casualties on the battlefield. “The sight of the bodies was scary,” he said. Image Credit: AP

Mayoub Al Makhlafi, the center's psychiatrist, said the common symptom among all the former child soldiers is extreme aggression. They suffer anxiety, panic attacks and attention deficits. Some describe being beaten by their own commanders, a staffer at the center said. She said she has also heard reports from children on both sides of the fighting about being sexually abused by officers. She spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of sexual abuse issues.

The center brings the children together for "listening sessions" that help them remember their lives before they were sent to war.

On his first day at the center, Mohammed said, he was terrified. He didn't know what they would do to him there. "But then I saw the teachers and they gave me a room to stay in. I felt good after that."

His mother lives in Taiz, in an area under Houthi control, so he can't live with her. He has other relatives and moves from one house to another. Sometimes, he said, he sleeps in the street.

He no longer has the bracelet with the serial number that the Houthis gave him as part of their promise that he'd get a martyr's funeral. When he defected, he said, his older brother sent him to be questioned by coalition authorities.

During the interrogation, a security officer took out a pair of scissors and cut the bracelet from Mohammed's wrist.