Children conscripted to fight for Houthi rebels in Yemen have been subjected to sexual abuse and indoctrinated to believe that it was their Islamic duty to fight the pro-government forces, according to a Saudi aid organisation.
The King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre (KSRelief) opened a rehabilitation centre for former child soldiers in Marib province earlier this year, in co-operation with a local partner, Wethaq Civic Foundation, a children rehabilitation project.
So far 161 children have successfully completed the programme, says Najeeb Al Sadi, director of the centre in Marib province, adding that the project aims to eventually reach more than 2,000 children, most of whom come from Marib, Al Jawf, Taiz, Sanaa, Amran and Hodeidah.
“About 16 per cent of these children that have come to the facility in Marib have said they were exposed to sexual assault by Houthi officials along the fronts or other older fighters,” Mr Al Sadi said.
The project aims to offer psychological and educational rehabilitation for former child soldiers and war-affected children "in a manner that facilitates their reintegration into society, in addition to targeting school re-enrolment, which they were forced to abandon due to being used in the war by the Iranian-backed Houthi Militia,” KSRelief said in a statement.
Since March 2015, the United Nations has documented over 2,300 cases of child recruitment in Yemen's civil war.
Mr Al Sadi said the staff is qualified to deal with children who have been traumatised and it includes psychologists and educational teachers.
“They learn the same lessons as they would have by attending a public school, and we also have psychologists to treat the children and figure out how they ended up fighting with the Houthis,” he said.
He also estimated that nearly 12,000 children had been recruited by Houthi rebels in the northern provinces, adding that 70 per cent of the children fighters are under the age of 15.
Mr Al Sadi said that many children recounted stories of their schools being stormed by the Iran-backed group, adding many were transported to battlefronts without their parents’ knowledge.
“They’ve told us stories about being raped and the rapes being videotaped, which would then be used to blackmail the children to make sure they don’t escape from the front,” he said.
“Other stories included being forced to undertake difficult tasks, such as executing injured Yemeni soldiers.”
Recorded accounts and statements of children, heard and seen by The National, outline how some of the minors were taken to the front lines.
One 15-year-old, identified as Sadiq, said he was given drugs, including the stimulant Qat, and forced to join the rebels to support his family.
“I was responsible for my family. My father is sick and unemployed, and we don’t have any source of income. The only thing I could do was join the Houthis, so I reluctantly did,” he said in written statement.
“I left school when I was in the third grade, and the Houthis took us to start digging trenches, after which they start training us on how to blow up opponents’ residences.
“They kept telling that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are American and Israeli proxies … that if we did not fight them, we are not Muslims.”
The Arab coalition, which includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE, intervened in the Yemen war in March 2015 at the request of the internationally-recognised government of President Abdrabu Hadi to restore its power and push back the rebels after they took control of the capital Sanaa.
Another former child fighter, a 14-year-old who used the pseudonym Abdul Fatah, said he was taken by force by the militia from his home in Haja province.
“Houthis stormed my school and made the principal list our names to be conscripted. I ran home, but they chased me. They took me from my home as my mother was crying and begging them to leave me alone,” he said via phone.
“When I arrived to the front to start digging trenches, I refused. I was hit on the head and was unconscious for a while. I woke up in a Houthi official’s shack and he started to act strangely.
“The Houthi official called over another militia member and told him that he’s going to rape me and record it.”
Abdel Fatah said that he had no choice but to remain with the Houthi rebels and fight.
“They said they would send the video to all my friends… and I gave in.”