Clad in military fatigues at a recently established checkpoint west of the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, 15-year-old Walid tried to sling an AK-47 assault rifle over his shoulder but the gun was too big for his short physique.
"He is carrying a gun taller than him," mocked a passer-by.
Walid was recruited into the First Armoured Division after it defected from the government in protest at the killing of 15 protesters on 21 April. “It is better for me to work for YR25,000 [US$110] a month than stay home without anything to do," he told IRIN.
He is one of the many children who have joined both government-aligned and defecting units of the Yemen army in an accelerated recruitment drive that has targeted children, according to child rights advocates. The drive has been fuelled by increased tensions in the country since February when protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh began. The protests gained the support of the al-Houthi rebels in the north.
Each of the three main military units currently active in Yemen, namely the pro-government Republican Guards and Central Security, and the pro-opposition First Armoured Division, have been enlisting more children under 18.
Ahmad al-Qurashi, chairman of local NGO Seyaj Organization for Childhood Protection (SOCP), said the phenomenon became more widespread after the defection of Maj-Gen Ali Mohsen's First Armoured Division. The exact number of child soldiers in pro-government and defecting units is unknown owing to the reluctance of the relevant military authorities to divulge it, but SOCP estimates it at several thousand.
“During our recent observations at checkpoints and other locations, we found many child soldiers wearing Republican Guard, First Armoured Division or Central Security uniforms,” al-Qurashi said. "In Sa’dah [northern governorate and the centre of the al-Houthi rebel movement], 50 percent of pro-government fighters and al-Houthi gunmen were found to be under age 18.”
According to the UN, an estimated 20 percent of al-Houthi fighters and 15 percent of the tribal militia affiliated with the government (Al-Jaysh Al-Sha’bi) are children.
This year's UN annual report on child soldiers has added the al-Houthi and pro-government tribal militia in Yemen to its "list of shame" of 57 armed groups around the world that recruit child soldiers or commit other wartime abuses against youngsters.
Yemeni militias, it noted, deployed boys in fighting and logistical roles on the front line, while girls, some of whom are allegedly recruited after being forced to marry militia members, were used for cooking or to carry military and others supplies.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), in an April report, said it had, over the past few months, come across “dozens of armed soldiers who appeared to be younger than 18” in Sana’a.
“Twenty of them, who gave their ages as between 14 and 16, told HRW they had served for up to two years in a division under the command of top military defector Gen Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar,” it said. According to Amnesty International, Yemeni government forces, have recruited children as young as 14.
Observers say child conscription dates back to the start of intermittent fighting between the Yemeni government and Houthi-led Shia rebels in Sa’dah in 2004.
Several dozen child soldiers, according to SOCP’s al-Qurashi, have been killed in these clashes. Last year, said the UN report, 42 were reportedly killed and 55 injured, allegedly as a direct result of fighting between Al-Houthi and pro-government militias. Twenty-four sustained serious injuries from explosive remnants of war, it added.
In April UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) spokesperson Marixie Mercado decried the increasing number of child deaths in conflict in Yemen, saying 26 children had been killed from 18 February to 19 April.
Yemeni law stipulates that army recruits must be 18, but recruiters sometimes forge children's IDs to get round this, sources said.
"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."
Ali al-Sayyaghi, a recruitment officer at the Ministry of Defence, admitted that some new recruits looked younger than the date of birth on their ID cards, but said the ID card was “the only reliable document for determining the age of an applicant".
Most child soldiers not only have the consent of their parents to join up, but the same parents are even complicit in forging their ID cards, because the family needs the extra income, Ibrahim Ali Saeed, who researches child rights abuses in Sana’a, told IRIN.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions