Since the beginning of the popular uprising, Yemen’s government has had to intensify its military recruitment campaign. With the recent waves of defections and the opening of several new fronts, the army is in great need of fresh blood. But most importantly, the government is trying to gather new loyalty under its banner in order to face the threat posed by Sheikh Sadeeq al-Ahmar. Although only a tribal leader, Sheikh Sadeeq has managed over the years to build up a militia quite capable of challenging the Yemeni army.
In response to this, the Defense Minister decided a few months ago to reopen the doors of its training camps, hoping that the promises of a steady income and a state pension would encourage many Yemenis to sign up. Officers close to defected General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar are saying that al-Islah and the 1st Armored Division are also following suit, trying to enroll more men to their cause, promising them a resemblance of financial security.
In a country where over 40% of the population is out of work, finding a government job is pretty much what everyone is after. Although the salaries are no more than 25,000 YER, about $110, many are attracted by the guarantee of a lifetime income. And if this tactic is pretty much “old school” when it comes to the military, a worrying trend is starting to emerge, as many of the new recruits are actually children.
Lambs to the Wolves
Young Ahmed Iryani, for example, is only 15 years old; he was hired by the 1st Armored Division just after General Mohsen decided to side with the revolutionaries, severing ties with the government. “It is better for me to work for 25,000 YER a month than stay home without anything to do,” he said. With a gun bigger than him, Ahmed is proudly manning one of the checkpoints around “Change Square”, not realizing that if a conflict were to break out, he would be standing directly on its frontline. “Those kids are meat for the Regime and al-Islah… they are posted where it is most dangerous. It’s sad,” said a Sana’a resident.
Child rights advocates are now warning against the trend, adding that if Yemen were to sink into war, many of its children would be sacrificed on the battlefields, innocent victims of a vicious system which preys on the most vulnerable.
Since March, most of the men enlisted are well below the legal age of 18. The recruiters are being told by the government to turn a blind eye and to falsify the army documents, making the new recruits appear older. “Two months ago, my 14-year-old cousin got an ID card showing he is 18 and he joined the Republican Guards,” Hamid al-Ghurbani, a high school teacher in Sana’a, told IRIN. “Last week, I saw him carrying a gun.”
Once the military IDs have been issued it is almost impossible to verify whether the soldiers are truly of legal age. To make matters worse, most of the recruits’ families, when they have any, are accomplice to this charade, preoccupied only by the new source of income.
On both sides, whether it be the government or the tribes, the same phenomenon is taking place. A retired general revealed that the “tactic” had been used systematically for several decades by Saleh’s regime. The Army usually targets orphans and runaways, offering them shelter and money against their undying loyalty. “Those kids were alone, without parents or guardians to look after them. The Army became their home, and President Ali their father,” said the general. But the government and Gen. Mohsen are now going one step further in child abuse. They are using the young recruits as bait to calculate the opposition’s reactions.
In Hasaba and in Arhab, those kids are sent as scouts to spy on the enemies’ positions or are used as decoy. Back in May, Hameed al-Ahmar used them to secure the area around his house. With only a few sand bags to protect them, they were asked to hold their positions no matter what. Residents reported that the children were so terrified that they did not dare look up from their shelter and were shooting blindly.
A recent report from the UN estimated that at least 15% of the tribal militia affiliated with the regime are children.
Human Right Watch rang the alarm bell as well, confirming that over the past few months they had come across several dozens of soldiers who appeared to be well below the legal age requirement. According to the organization so far this year 500 “child soldiers” were killed in action.