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The children of Yemen’s tribal war

International concern is growing over the use of youngsters by Huthis in their escalating conflict with the Yemeni government, but a child suicide bomber’s story shows that these atrocities are far from one-sided

At first, it is difficult to see the boy sitting behind the rows of microphones, spotlights shining down on him as cameras roll from all sides of the packed hotel conference room.

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Above the table where he sits hangs a huge poster showing 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 plastic bags strapped to his legs.

The Arabic script above the photograph reads: “No to the exploitation of children for destructive operations and terrorism.”

Prior to the press conference a text message from the government had alerted journalists and aid workers to the shocking news: a nine-year-old suicide bomber had been arrested carrying a bomb through the Old City of Saada, stronghold of the powerful Huthi clan in Yemen’s north, which for five years has led an armed rebellion against the government of Sanaa, the capital.

The escalating war with the Huthi rebels has been long and bloody, killing several thousand people, displacing some 175,000 civilians and directly challenging the ability of Yemen’s president of three decades Ali Abdullah Saleh to maintain his rule over this wild and rugged land.

The rebellion began in 2004 with the Huthis, members of a Shia Muslim sect, complaining of religious, political and economic discrimination by the Sunni-majority government. Dug into tunnels and bases in the mountains around Saada, the Huthis, estimated at between 5,000 to 10,000 fighters, have been waging an effective guerilla insurgency, fighting with rockets, grenades, machine guns and roadside bombs to inflict serious casualties on Yemen’s out-dated military.

The war escalated into a regional conflict last month when Saudi Arabia, the local oil giant and top US ally, launched ongoing airstrikes and artillery attacks on Huthi positions along the poorly demarcated border between Yemen and Saudi, accusing the Huthis of crossing into Saudi territory and killing border guards.

Amnesty International this week urged the Saudi authorities to investigate what it said may have been a deliberate Saudi airstrike on a home in north-west Yemen which reportedly killed seven civilians.

Strapped up with explosives around his legs and a detonator in his hand, the photograph of young Akram appeared to embody the cruelty of an increasingly bitter war, a child made into a bomb by rebels who would stop at nothing to inflict casualties and terror.

The government said Akram had been stopped by police in Saada before he could reach his target. At the police station Akram was photographed and the media called in to report on the young suicide bomber. Akram and his father were then driven to Sanaa to tell their story to the assembled crowd of Yemeni officials, children’s rights groups and journalists.

Standing up, Akram takes a microphone in his small hand and delivers the message: “To use children in war is wrong.”

The press conference over, Akram is whisked away by a government official before journalists can ask him any more questions about what had happened.

The following day, the Sunday Herald finds Akram and his father at a centre for homeless children in Sanaa, run by Shawthab for Childhood, a local children’s rights group. Shortly after his arrest in Saada, the government arranged for Akram and his father to be driven the eight-hour journey south to the capital, Sanaa, to give their press conference.

After the press conference, fearing reprisals from the Huthis, Akram’s father said he did not wish to return home to Saada and so the pair were accommodated in the Shawthab centre, their only safe haven. Akram’s grandmother and younger brother remained behind.

Shy after all the media attention, Akram plays with a remote controlled car as he explains how he came to appear in a government poster as a pre-teen suicide bomber.

Slowly, what emerges is a story of Akram’s manipulation at the hands not only of the Huthis, but the government as well.

“I was going home from working with my father at our store when I met a cousin who asked if I could deliver a package to a friend,” said Akram. “He said, ‘This is just wires.’ He tied the bags to my legs and put something in my pocket.”

Akram was to be paid 150 Yemeni Rial (44p) to transport “the wires” to a friend of the cousin. Asked about the bomb strapped to his son, Akram’s father exclaimed: “Bomb? There was never any bomb. There were thirty detonators, but no explosives.”

One local NGO worker, speaking anonymously for fear of reprisal, told the Sunday Herald he had been contacted by the government who asked if he would talk to Akram and persuade him to confess to being a suicide bomber.

“I knew immediately the poster was a fake,” said the NGO worker. “The children need help, not this. I said no to the government. We are independent and will not get involved in government propaganda.”

 

But if Akram has been used by both rebels and government, his exploitation as a child soldier in Yemen is far from unique. Carved into remote and inaccessible regions by its soaring mountains and vast, empty plains, Yemen remains a tribal society, the poorest in the Middle East and as complicated to rule as Afghanistan.

For many children under the age of one and growing up inside the traditions of their tribe, carrying arms is a right of passage. Across Yemen’s countryside, it is a common site to see boys of 13 or 14 years old carrying Kalashnikovs as they ride with members of their tribe in the back of pick-up trucks.

“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.”

In a country of 25 million people, there are believed to be some 60 million guns. Though Sanaa’s gun market was recently closed down, many are still doing brisk business, the gun being integral to Yemen’s tribal culture. No license is required to own weapons. IRIN, a humanitarian news agency, report that between 2004 and 2006 in Yemen more than 23,000 people were injured or killed by guns. Many of those were children.

Last year, a decades-old dispute over land between members of Yemen’s two most powerful tribal coalitions, the Bakil and the Hashid, flared into armed conflict following the outbreak of the sixth round of the Huthi rebellion in Saada.

The Bakil supported the Huthis; the Hashid allied with the government. Children’s rights groups reported hundreds of under 18s were used in the conflict, with dozens killed.

Abdul-Rahman al-Marwani, chairman of the Dar as-Salaam Organisation to Combat Revenge and Violence, a local NGO, reports that as many as 500-600 children are killed or injured through direct involvement in combat in Yemen every year.

Yet only now is the issue of child soldiers being discussed in Yemen.

Prior to Akram’s press conference, the Yemeni office of UNICEF -- the UN agency tasked with protecting the rights of children -- had been cautious over pushing the government to tackle the problem of child soldiers. At least one international NGO reported receiving veiled threats in a meeting with officials that discussion of child soldiers could jeopardize the organisation’s future presence in Yemen.

The government’s sensitivity over the issue stems from a simple fact: it too uses child soldiers. Though the official minimum age for joining the army is 18, the tribes which the government arms and finances to fight the Huthis alongside the army 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.”

The Huthi rebels have also been accused of using children as soldiers and of recruiting young boys from schools in Saada into the Huthi’s so-called Believing Youth movement.

“The Huthis 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.

Speaking to the Sunday Herald, Yemen’s army spokesman Askar Zuail accused the Huthis of using children under 14 in their combat operations: “The Huthis are merciless. They have resorted to using children because they are losing fighters and children are easy to recruit and teach.”

No accurate figures exist for the number of children being used as soldiers in Yemen.

It is estimated that children account for around half of all fighters in both the tribes allied with the Huthis and the government-allied tribes.

The problem of child soldiers in Yemen is now grabbing the attention of the international community. UNICEF has been asked to produce a report on child soldiers in Yemen by the end of the year for the UN’s Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, who is due to visit the country in coming weeks.

Coomaraswamy said she is investigating both rebel and government forces using underage combatants, adding that she is 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 both its optional protocols which “require States to do everything they can to prevent individuals under the age of 18 from taking a 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 and could see Yemen added to an annual report presented to the UN Security Council now listing 20 countries where child soldiers are used in conflict.

The day after his name and face appeared on Yemeni TV, Akram’s house in Saada’s Old City was targeted by a bomb. Retaliation, so the government said, by the Huthis. Akram’s younger brother was at home when the explosion struck and pieces of shrapnel shot into his face and chest.

At the time of our interview, the boy had yet to receive surgery for his injuries and was being cared for by his grandmother -- Akram’s mother having died last year.

Though furious with the cousin who used his boy as a child soldier, Akram’s father said the hurt had been compounded by the government’s effort to turn the story into a propaganda campaign.

“The government has put our family in a bad situation. I am too scared to go back to Saada now,” he said. “We feel used.”

As for Akram, like so many child soldiers manipulated at the hands of adults, he appears to understand little of who or what he was supposed to be fighting for. But as to the consequences of the conflict he has been caught up in, Akram is only too painfully aware.

“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.

He asks politely if the interview is finished, puts down his remote-controlled car and runs over to join the group of other homeless children kicking a football around in the bright midday sun.

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