Thousands of children are among waves of raw recruits sent by Houthi rebels to the front line in Marib in Yemen, say pro-government forces fighting the rebels.
This is seen as a desperate bid by the Iran-backed group to overwhelm government defences and capture the oil-rich province that shelters millions who have fled the fighting.
Many young fighters have been recruited from school – often forcibly – and sent to fight as first-wave attackers, with the aim of wearing down pro-government forces before more experienced fighters attack, pro-government military leaders and officials said.
Sheikh Mohammed Al Qardaie, a tribal leader fighting the Houthis in southern Marib province, told The National that the rebels had pushed hundreds of young recruits to the front line since their assault on the region began in February.
"They use them in the first attacks as an attrition tactic to wear down our forces and try to penetrate our ranks before they send in the experienced fighters," Sheikh Al Qardaie said.
“But this tactic has failed and hundreds of these children were captured by our fighters in the past couple of months."
Sheikh Al Qardaie said the majority of those captured around Marib were about 16 and from the provinces of Thamar, Amran, and Ibb.
"The Houthi rebels depend on these provinces for military reinforcements,” he said.
“They collect children and subject them to ideological brainwashing sessions, usually held in secret camps, and give them a month of training.
"After that these children are moved to the front line."
The Houthis began using young recruits in greater numbers to bolster their ranks in an effort to take the province, a source in the Yemeni Army in Marib said.
Yemen’s Human Rights Ministry confirmed the use of child soldiers in Marib.
The ministry's manager in Marib province, Abdu Rabu Godeia, told The National that 387 children have been captured by pro-government forces in Marib since February and turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"We rehabilitated 147 of these children over three months, before handing them over to the ICRC to which sent them back to their families.
"Meanwhile, 240 others were handed straight to their families through the ICRC without rehabilitation," Mr Godeia said.
Many of the children fighting for the Houthis have been forcibly recruited straight from school.
The Houthis have changed the school curriculum in the areas under their control in an effort to radicalise pupils, said a teachers' union official.
Yahya Al Yinai, a spokesman for the Yemeni Teachers' Union, told The National that the group had documented 2,200 cases of pupils being recruited into Houthi militias since the beginning of 2021.
"The Houthi group has removed the national content from the curriculum and replaced it with a system that teaches the group's ideology," said Mr Al Yinai.
"The group designed its own education system to be used as a tool to mobilise thousands of school pupils.”
Mr Al Yinai said that cutting teachers' pay had contributed to the collapse of education in Houthi-held areas of the country.
Rehabilitation efforts continue
To counter the mass recruitment of children by the Houthis, the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre has been rehabilitating child soldiers for almost four years.
The Saudi Arabian centre launched its rehabilitation programme in Marib to help Yemeni children overcome the psychological impact of war.
“The programme has rehabilitated 531 children aged between 13 and 16 since it launched in August 2017," said the programme’s head, Moharram Al Mahmoudi.
"The programme has carried out 19 courses, and each course continues for 45 days," he told The National.
Mr Al Mahmoudi said the children receive psychological, social and educational rehabilitation, plus financial assistance, to help them return to their families and live in a peaceful environment.
Despite rehabilitation efforts, large numbers of Yemeni children are dying after being inducted into the Houthi militias.
Yemen's Minister of Legal Affairs and Human Rights, Ahmed Arman, told The National that in 2020 alone his ministry had documented the deaths of 1,400 children, who were killed while fighting alongside Houthi rebels.
[The Houthis] have pushed hundreds of children into their fronts since the war began in 2014.
"The rebels have been deceiving the Yemeni people and the international community through misleading news, falsely reporting that many children were killed by air strikes or during bombardment for the Yemeni army,” Mr Arman said.
“The fact is these children were killed while fighting alongside the militias."