Yemen is still one of the worst humanitarian disasters currently ongoing in the world. The conflict, which began when Houthi rebels refusal to accept the political transition of power, is not ‘sexy’ enough to hold the attention of the international press for sustained periods of time, but it rages on, causing ever mounting human suffering on a mass scale. So far, tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, three million have been displaced from their home, and due to the destruction of infrastructure, as many as 17 million are at risk of famine: in a country with a population of around 28 million.
But the worst affected, as often is the case in these kinds of conflicts, are the most vulnerable. In particular, the children. As many as 80% of children in the country are affected by the famine and in desperate need of aid.
Not only are they disproportionally affected by the food shortages, but they have also been systematically targeted by the Houthis in the conflict. Over 2016 alone, over 500 children were killed and a further 800 plus were maimed. The UN verified 38 deliberate attacks on schools and hospitals over the year.
But an even bigger tragedy is befalling the young in Yemen. Beyond the numbers killed in attacks on schools and hospitals, increasingly large numbers are being drafted into the fighting itself. The Houthi rebels in particular, but also Islamist militias, tribal militias and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are already known for deploying boys as young as 14-16. There are reports of recruits as young as 12. The recruitment and use of children under 15 in an armed conflict is a war crime under international law.
The Human Rights Watch also reports that the young “volunteers” for the Houthis for example, receive ideological and Zaidi Shia Islamic training for at least a month, followed by military training at one of their bases across the country. After which they can be deployed in active fighting, usually as support and operations for fighters on the front line, or as first aid respondents to the wounded. Though that still means they often find themselves in the line of fire. The children “volunteers” do not get paid for their services. Instead, they receive food and qat – a mild drug widely chewed in Yemen.
To their credit, the Saudis have initiated a programme to rehabilitate children affected by the war through their King Salman Centre for Medical Relief and Humanitarian Aid. Yet the majority of the children actively participating in the war are on the Houthi side. How many of them would be permitted in a Saudi rehabilitation centres is an entirely different matter.
And yet there is an urgent need to get these young people out of the fighting and get them the psychological and emotional healing and nourishment they require. This need is finally being recognised by the international community, and NGOs have already begun to take the initiative.
The Global Needs Foundation (GNF), for example, has just conducted the first independent medical mission to the country, and has started laying the foundations for the infrastructure needed to address the needs of the children sucked into the war on all sides – not just the Saudi side. The organisation founded and led by the charismatic Mohamed Ahmed Alsherif has been pioneering relief missions in disaster areas and war zones since it’s inception.
Dr John Kahler, a US paediatrician and Board Member of MedGlobal, a Chicago based medical relief organisation founded by Dr Zaher Sahloul, who formerly headed the Syrian American Medical Society, was one of four doctors in the first Global Needs Foundation mission to Yemen. Dr Kahler and the team visited hospitals and clinics deep inside hostile territory with security provided by the Global Needs Foundation. They witnessed not just the signature mine injuries common in war zones but also the psychological trauma suffered by former child soldiers and the extra effort being undertaken by the King Salman Center to ensure their rehabilitation. “Each school catered for the psychological needs of the children not just the physical”, said Dr Kahler. “Most were between the ages of ten and fourteen with approx 30 to each class in three different schools which seem to have been started specially for this purpose. They were doing a wonderful job, absolutely wonderful.”
Where the Global Needs Foundation and King Salman Centre has led, the rest of the international community must follow. For the sake of those children, and for the sake of peace in the future. There is no end in sight for the Yemen conflict yet, but the more time we allow the wounds of war to be inflicted upon young minds, into the leaders of tomorrow, the more likely we make it that Yemen may never again get to know peace. We must not allow this to happen.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy.