Coronavirus: Houthi rebels suspend schools and open new camps for child recruits

Sanaa residents say the Iran-backed militia is using the pandemic to boost its power on the battlefield

An empty classroom is seen at a closed school in Sanaa, Yemen, Sunday, March 15, 2020. The Houthi rebels, who control the capital, Sanaa, and the country's north announced the closure of classes in areas under their control for a month as part of a preventive measure taken against the spread of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
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The Houthi rebels have been using the suspension of classes in Sanaa and other areas under their control in northern Yemen because of Covid-19 to brainwash young fighters, residents say.

The Iran-backed militia closed schools and universities on Sunday. Yemen has suffered no cases of the coronavirus so far, in either government or Houthi-held territory, but fears remain about what could happen to the war-racked country’s population if the virus spreads.

After the school closures, the Houthis moved to open new camps for child recruits, making pupils enrol at these instead, said those living in Houthi-occupied territory.

"Instead of teaching the curriculum at schools, the Houthi authorities ordered the schools to be suspended over allegations of fighting coronavirus, and later they opened camps just similar to the summer camps," a resident of Sanaa told The National.

“They brought the students of the primary and secondary schools together and are brainwashing their minds, telling them that coronavirus is a biological war launched by America and Israel to destroy the Muslim countries.”

There are fears in Yemen that the rebels are using the crisis as a pretext to bolstering their ranks in the five-year war against the internationally recognised government backed by the Arab Coalition.

“I believe that they don’t have any concern over coronavirus because they never care for the Yemeni people at all – dozens of civilians die every day due to the war in areas under their control,” the resident said.

In the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, officials confirmed the suspension of education institutions in Houthi areas, and said the rebels were trying to take more children to the front lines of the conflict.

"They suspended the schooling in all the educational institutions, justifying it as a proactive step to control the spread of coronavirus, but instead they started holding sectarian brainwashing activities and recruiting the children to be pushed into the fronts," Abdulnaser Al Mamlooh, the media director of the National Resistance based in Hodeidah, told The National.

Yemen’s representative at the UN has estimated that the Houthis have recruited more than 30,000 children since the war broke out in 2015. Thousands of them are believed to have been killed on the battlefield.

“Such behaviour exposes the Houthis and reveals their real face – they never care for the people or pay any attention to protect them – so their claims over suspending the schooling to protect the students from coronavirus remain fake and politicised. They shuttered the schools and opened the recruitment camps. So, what is the difference?” Mr Al Mamlooh said.

“Is it not the same? Coronavirus would not be able to reach the children in their recruitment camps because they would be immunised by the Houthi slogans? That is ridiculous.”

The Houthi rebels have been focusing on schools and the universities as sources of new recruits. They have repeatedly stormed schools and forced pupils to join the fronts without telling their families.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that is the case. Houthis have relied heavily on recruiting children for their war,” Nadwa Dawsari, a Yemeni analyst, said.

The Houthi rebels engage the children and the university students in sectarian activities in private camps as they convince them to join the fronts, away from their families who don’t have a chance to make them refuse.

“Many children I interviewed believed that they were fighting America and Israel in Yemen because the Houthis told them that the West will steal their land and resources,” Fatima Abulasrar, a Yemen conflict analyst and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said.

“Children are brainwashed into fighting Yemen’s national army because they genuinely believe they are protecting their land.”