It is late autumn in 2020. A group of child soldiers is on its way to the city of Marib in northern Yemen. They have been on the road for several days and are careful not to be captured by the government army. Therefore, they move from place to place, quickly and discreetly.
The story is retold by adults who have met the children afterwards. NRK has spoken with Abbed Al Hakim Al-Keisi, director of social services at Marib, who has met them.
The soldiers have been training for a long time on this mission. Everyone is under 18 years old. The youngest has just turned 12. They are soldiers for the Houthi movement, which has been fighting for power over Yemen for several years. The opponent is the government army, which is supported by Saudi Arabia, among others.
The oil city of Marib has become an important destination for the Houthis. After six years of brutal civil war, the movement needs new sources of income.
When the child soldiers arrived in the city, they must have been received by an adult man. According to local sources, he is a coordinator of the Houthi movement, and it is he who divides the young boys into several groups. All the children are from different cities in northern Yemen, where the Houthis are in control. Some have volunteered, others because of poverty. Several are also said to have been abducted.
The children will finally get to know the details of the secret mission: They will deploy and detonate several bombs in the city to create chaos and fear among civilians. At the same time, the adult soldiers from the Houthi movement will attack.
Here, the Houthi movement is in action outside Marib in March this year.
Since 2014, the Houthis have controlled the capital, Sanaa, in Yemen. In recent months, they have moved ever closer to Marib, which they will take over.
But the battle for the city has cost. Several thousand people have been killed and many are seeking refuge in Marib. 150,000 refugees live in the area and experience constant rocket attacks from the Houthis.
Early one morning, the child soldiers place bombs at several places in the city, NRK is told. Several bombs go off, one of them on the main road into Marib.
We do not have pictures of when the bomb went off. But this view outside Marib is commonplace, here from March 3 this year.
According to local sources, several people were killed and injured in the bombing.
Not all children become killers this day. In another place in Marib, another group of child soldiers is discovered by the security police and arrested.
Some will say they were caught. Others will say they were saved. Now the question is whether they should be punished or rehabilitated for a war they should never have participated in.
Middle title image of children with weapons and the title worst place for children.
A local proverb before the war said that there are three pistols for every person living in Yemen. The enormous supply of weapons facilitated the civil war, and also contributes to its continuation.
The war has lasted since 2014 and has since been considered a humanitarian crisis by the UN. The consequences for the people of Yemen are brutal.
Over 200,000 have been killed and around 4 million have fled their homes. Poverty is relentless. Many die of starvation.
Jean-Yves M. Gallardo, Director of Information at Unicef, is clear in his judgment of how bad the situation is:
– Yemen is the worst place in the world for children to grow up in, he says.
While the human rights organization SAM believes that there are more than 10,000 child soldiers, Unicef has so far only mapped 3653. But they themselves admit that they lack an overview.
Most of the soldiers in the war are adults. But among them there are also children.
Photo: MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP
Most boys are recruited. According to Gallardo, they are either abducted from school, lured with money or manipulated into the war. They are not just soldiers. They are also kitchen helpers and messengers.
According to Unicef, several of them are also sexually abused.
Following a mandate from the UN, Unicef is in dialogue with all parties to the conflict.
– We will help these children and make sure that they are released. But we must work preventively. That is, we urge the parties to the conflict not to recruit children and not to attack schools, Gallardo says.
– Do they listen to you?
The child soldiers who were taken by the security police in Marib last year, were later questioned and identified. Instead of punishing them, they were sent to the local rehabilitation center for child soldiers.
Abbot Al Hakim Al-Keisi received ten of them. He is the one who has retold the stories of what the boys have experienced in the war.
– When they came to us they were tired, exhausted and very scared. It took a long time before we got them in a normal condition again, he says on the phone to NRK.
Al-Keisi is leading the rehabilitation work as director of social services at Marib. Together with health workers and teachers, he tries to help the children return to as normal a life as possible, before they are sent home.
Since 2017, the center in Marib has tried to help child soldiers. In 2018, the news agency AP reported that they had taken in over 200 children. Now they themselves report that they have rehabilitated over 400.
But the war continues. New children are constantly being recruited or forced to become soldiers.
The boy describes how he was forced to take an ideological course, before he was sent to training camp to learn how to become a soldier.
– In the training camps, these children are told that they will fight against the United States, Christians and Jews in several cities in Yemen, says human rights activist Tawfik Alhamidi.
It is not true.
– The children are surprised when they find neither Americans nor Israelis, as they were told. They only find Yemenis. Many of them collapse and start crying when they discover that they have been tricked, Alhamidi continues.