From China to Lebanon and the US, countries across the globe are taking swift action to counter the ongoing threat of coronavirus. School closures are a common, and necessary, response to pandemics as serious as Covid-19. Unlike elsewhere in the world, however, school closures in Yemen are being ordered and exploited for criminal ends.
Civilians in Houthi-controlled areas have told The National that the rebels are taking advantage of the pandemic to brainwash and recruit young Yemenis into their ranks. Where schools have been closed, the Houthis opened new camps in their place, in which children and young adults are told that the coronavirus is "a biological war launched by America and Israel to destroy Muslim countries," according to a resident of the capital Sanaa.
This would not be the first time the Houthis have sought to recruit children to their cause. It has, in fact, been part of the group’s strategy from the very beginning of Yemen’s civil war. According to Abdullah Ali Fadhel Al-Saadi, Yemen’s permanent representative at the UN, more than 30,000 children have fought for the Houthis since 2015. They have repeatedly stormed schools and education centres, forcing pupils to join their ranks without informing their families.
Now, the Houthis are deploying this tactic once again. After a five-month reprieve, the rebels have begun to advance their northern and southern fronts, and they are in desperate need of more soldiers. This month, they took Al Jawf province, on the Saudi border, and are now perilously close to the oil-rich province of Marib. The Al Jawf offensive triggered a humanitarian crisis, jeopardising the lives of three million people who had sought refuge in the border region, at a time when Riyadh, which leads the Arab Coalition supporting Yemen’s internationally recognised government, had been attempting to broker a truce.
Instead of engaging with the Arab Coalition, the rebels have chosen to tread a path of violence and misinformation. Spreading lies about the coronavirus not only serves to brainwash young people and steal their futures, it has the potential to wreak untold damage upon Yemeni society.
It is of utmost importance to practice social distancing, avoid gatherings and wash one’s hands often to avoid contracting and spreading the coronavirus. If people are led to believe the virus is a hoax, Yemenis may be inclined not to take preventive action, endangering the lives of millions in a country where public health care is weak or non-existent.
At a time when the world is witnessing a health crisis, the Houthis are acting without an iota of regard for the health of the population whose territory they want to control. Worse still, the rebels may be weaponising the coronavirus to turn students into child soldiers.
With every month that passes, the Houthis reveal more of their true face and take their doctrine of hate to new heights. Now more than ever, Yemenis need support and protection.