The huge poster hanging in the press conference shows a Yemeni boy dressed in a traditional brown robe, holding a detonator in one hand, while with the other he lifts his gown to reveal packages strapped to his legs.
He looks just like what the local media reported him to be: a child suicide bomber. Above the poster the Arabic reads: “No, to the exploitation of children for destructive operations and terrorism.”
Akram, the nine-year-old boy in the poster, stands up in front of the microphones and before the assembled crowd of officials, children’s rights groups and journalists gathered in Sanaa last month for Yemen’s first open discussion on child soldiers, and delivers his message: “To use children in war is wrong.”
Rights groups estimate several thousand child soldiers have been involved in the war between government forces and Houthi rebels in northern Yemen since 2004.
The day after the press conference, Akram’s father told IRIN his son never carried explosives. “Bomb? There was never any bomb. There were 30 detonators, but no explosives,” he said.
Akram said he was asked by a distant cousin to deliver a package of wires to a friend in Saada’s Old City. “He said, ‘This is just wires.’ He tied the bags to my legs and put something in my pocket,” said Akram.
Children in conflict
Whatever the truth about what Akram was carrying, his exploitation as a child soldier in Yemen is far from unique. A culture of under 18s carrying arms is ingrained in Yemen’s tribal society.
“We have a saying here,” said Ahmed al-Gorashi, chairman of Seyaj, a local NGO working to prevent the use of child soldiers: “If you are old enough to carry the `jambiya’ [a curved dagger traditionally worn in the belt of Yemeni men] then you are old enough to fight with your tribe. And children carry the `jambiya’ from 12 years old.”
Across Yemen, it is common to see boys of 13 or 14 carrying Kalashnikovs as they ride with members of their tribe in the back of pick-up trucks.
The government accuses the Houthi rebels of using children as soldiers and of recruiting young boys from schools in Saada into their Believing Youth movement.
“The Houthis use children to recruit other children from schools. They send the children leaflets and books to read saying joining Believing Youth is a way to become closer to God,” said Mariam al-Shwafi, manager of Shawthab, a local NGO.
Photo: Muhammed al-Jabri/IRIN
|A culture of under 18s carrying arms is ingrained in Yemen’s tribal society|
“The Houthis use children as fighters, as a means of communication between groups of fighters and as couriers,” said Gorashi.
“Deep cultural issue”
The official minimum age for joining the army is 18, but the tribes which the government arms and finances to fight the Houthis alongside the army also often use children.
“The government is not knowingly recruiting underage soldiers into the army, but the tribal militias they are signing up are using child soldiers,” said Andrew Moore, country director of Save the Children in Yemen. “It’s a deep cultural issue, but if we don’t talk about it, it’s never going to change.”
No accurate figures exist for the number of children being used as soldiers in Yemen.
However, Seyaj estimates that under 18s may make up more than half the fighting force of tribes, both those fighting with the Houthis and those allied with the government.
In a country of 23 million people, there are believed to be up to 17 million guns, according to the Small Arms Survey, with hundreds of children killed or injured every year through direct involvement in combat.
The problem of child soldiers in Yemen is now grabbing the attention of the international community. UNICEF has been tasked with producing a report on child soldiers in Yemen by the end of the year for the UN special representative of the Secretary-General on “children and armed conflict”, Radhika Coomaraswamy, who said she was extremely concerned that “large numbers” of teenage boys have been dragged into the fighting.
Yemen is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and ratified in 2007 its two optional protocols which “require States to do everything they can to prevent individuals under the age of 18 from taking direct part in hostilities”.
Persistent failure to prevent children taking part in conflict is considered a war crime by prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.
But no investigation can make things right for Akram.
The day after he was caught by the police and his name appeared on local TV, a bomb targeted Akram’s house in Sadaa’s Old City. His little brother was injured and is being cared for by his grandmother. Akram and his father now live in hiding in Sanaa, too scared to go home.
“I miss my grandmother and I’m worried about my brother. I’m not together with all my family and I want to see them again, but I can’t because of this war,” said the boy.