In 2020, Yemeni photographer Ali Alsonidar captured a moment that encompassed both the horrors of the current war in Yemen as well as worries for future ones. The photograph, which was taken in Houthi-controlled Sanaa, shows two young boys, both with guns slung over their shoulders, passing another young boy wearing a school backpack. The youngest of the two child soldiers is caught looking back over his shoulder at the schoolboy, almost as if he is watching what should have been his future disappear.
Children with guns are not a new phenomenon in Yemen. For centuries, young boys, often between the ages of 12 and 15, took up arms to protect their family or defend tribal territory. But what is happening in Yemen now is something categorically different and much more disturbing. Children aren’t merely joining localized and collective defense groups. Instead, they are being targeted, recruited, trained, and, ultimately, transformed into soldiers. In Yemen, this process is being institutionalized just as the child soldiers it produces are glorified.
Regardless of how or when the current conflict ends, child soldiers are not simply going to disappear. This is a problem that will impact Yemen and its neighbors for decades to come. These child soldiers are the seeds of Yemen’s future wars.
A recent report for the United States Agency for International Development, written by this author and others, found that all sides in Yemen – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Houthis, the United Nations-recognized government, and a host of militia groups – are guilty of weaponizing children, winding them up and sending them off to fight. But it is the Houthis who are – by far – the biggest producers of child soldiers in Yemen.
Most reports – including the U.N. secretary general’s report on “Children and Armed Conflict,” reports by the U.N. Security Council’s Yemen Panel of Experts, and reports by the U.N.’s now-disbanded Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts – suggest the Houthis are responsible for more than two-thirds of all child soldiers in Yemen. Partly this is a result of recent history, and partly, the Houthis would argue, this is driven by military necessity, but it is all deliberate.
In the 1980s, the group that would become known as the Houthis established summer camps in the northern highlands in Saada. Ostensibly, the purpose of these camps was to educate the next generation in the fundamentals of Zaydism, the sect of Shiism that is predominant in northern Yemen. Zaydi imams, after all, ruled north Yemen for much of the past millennium until they were overthrown in 1962. But Zaydi theology has always had a martial element, and the Zaydis who formed these first summer camps, including members of the al-Houthi family itself, instituted military training as well.
The graduates of these first summer camps would go on to form the nucleus of the Houthi movement from 2004-10, when the group fought the government of then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Throughout the current conflict, which began in 2014, the Houthis have consistently pushed children into the frontlines, particularly in and around Hodeidah in 2018 and 2019 and in Marib in 2020 and 2021, as a way to offset a lack of forces. The Houthis have also recruited and utilized young girls to plant land mines and as cooks and spies.
The Houthis are using a push-pull approach to recruiting child soldiers and, in the process, are remaking Yemeni society. First, the group is taking advantage of poverty, which is the greatest driver of the recruitment of child soldiers in Yemen, and the country’s dismal economy. When the war started in 2014, the Yemeni rial was trading at 250 to 1 against the U.S. dollar. Today, in Houthi-controlled territories, the rial is around 650 to 1 against the dollar. Salaries, for the few who still receive them, haven’t changed, but what the rial buys has decreased significantly.
This has made many families food insecure, which the Houthis exploit by promising food baskets to families who contribute soldiers, including children, to the cause. In essence, the Houthis are weaponizing humanitarian aid.
At the same time, educational opportunities have evaporated in Yemen. Teachers, many of whom don’t receive salaries for months at a time if at all, are siphoned off to join militia groups, which is one of the few growth areas in Yemen. In other cases, schools that have been bombed have not been rebuilt. Making matters worse, according to interviews with people on the ground, the Houthis are beginning to impose what amounts to a tax on children attending government schools. The extra money, about 1,000 Yemeni rials per month, is enough to dissuade some families from sending their children to school. If that still doesn’t work, Houthi recruiters are also there to whisper in parents’ ears that instead of paying school fees, the families could be receiving money and defending Yemen if only their children would join up to fight.
In April 2022, coinciding with the national truce, the Houthis signed an agreement with the U.N. that committed the group to stop recruiting child soldiers. Despite that agreement, however, the U.N. Panel of Experts on Yemen found that the Houthis were “continuing with the indoctrination, recruitment and, in some instances, military training of children at the summer camps.” Indeed, in some ways, the Houthis are actually increasing their efforts to recruit and train children.
Houthi textbooks now feature sections on child “martyrs,” who have fought and died in the current war. Streets in Sanaa and other cities in the north often feature posters of child soldiers that are pasted on walls of shops. Zamil, the popular chanted poetry that is often featured on Houthi-controlled radio, glamorizes and glorifies children who have “sacrificed” themselves to defend Yemen.
This is Yemen’s future: boys and girls who have been indoctrinated, lied to, and manipulated into taking up arms. These are young men and women who will fight Yemen’s next wars.