A Refuge in Yemen Mixes Play With Saudi Propaganda
The civil war in Darfur robbed Hager Shomo Ahmed of almost any hope. Raiders had stolen his family’s cattle, and a dozen years of bloodshed had left his parents destitute. Then, around the end of 2016, Saudi Arabia offered a lifeline: The kingdom would pay as much as $10,000 if Hager joined its forces fighting 1,200 miles away in Yemen. Hager, 14 at the time, could not find Yemen on a map, and his mother was appalled. He had survived one horrific civil war — how could his parents toss him into another?
“Families know that the only way their lives will change is if their sons join the war and bring them back money,” Hager said in an interview with the New York Times.
Led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudis say they are battling to rescue Yemen from a hostile faction backed by Iran. But to do it, the Saudis have used their vast oil wealth to outsource the war, mainly by hiring what Sudanese soldiers say are tens of thousands of desperate survivors of the conflict in Darfur to fight, many of them children. At any time for nearly four years as many as 14,000 Sudanese militiamen have been fighting in Yemen.
Some families are so eager for the money that they bribe militia officers to let their sons go fight. Many are ages 14 to 17. In interviews, five fighters who have returned from Yemen and another about to depart said that children made up at least 20 percent of their units. Two said children were more than 40 percent.
However, the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C. has strongly objected to the allegations made in the report. The Embassy stated that the story is false and seriously flawed by lack of evidence and several unsubstantiated claims. Saudi Arabia does not deploy children as fighters. Furthermore, the Kingdom examined the records of all military personnel that have been deployed through Saudi Arabia as part of military operations in Yemen and has determined that there are no underage personnel.
The Kingdom claimed that it has been trying for more than a year to bring attention to the fact that the Houthi militia in Yemen has, without denial, used children as fighters. In fact, Saudi Arabia has taken steps to try to protect children from being used by the Houthi militia as soldiers, including establishing a rehabilitation center in Yemen to address the needs of children who were pressed into fighting for the Houthis and is helping them return to normal lives.
Preposterously, at the Marib rehabilitation center, the boys are counseled by Mahoub al Mekhlafi, who said in an interview that he held a doctorate in psychology from the American University in Cairo. But according to NYT he could not understand rudimentary English, and the university does not teach in any other language. Nor does it offer a doctorate in psychology. During a visit to the center, all the boys gathered to sing a song for their visitors. “We are living in peace at the King Salman Center,” they sang. “We are the builders of tomorrow.”
Aid groups recommen returning children to their families as soon as possible, followed by long-term support and education in their home communities.
Unicef, the United Nations agency focused on children, has verified more than 2,700 cases of children enlisted in combat in Yemen and “this could just be a tip of the iceberg”. Furthermore, aid groups say the recruitment of child soldiers is widespread on all sides of the Yemen conflict.
Saudi-backed forces often consider it a form of support for the family of a dead soldier to enlist his young son. “It is a big problem,” Mr. Qubati, the Yemeni director of the center, said. “In Yemen, the child is only a child until 12, and then he becomes a man. The society thinks very highly of children who carry arms.”
According to New York Times, the Saudi payments to the soldiers have become increasingly significant to Sudan, where inflation has hit 70 percent and even in the capital residents line up for bread, fuel and bank withdrawals.
All said they fought only for money. They were paid in Saudi riyals, the equivalent of about $480 a month for a 14-year-old novice to about $530 a month for an experienced Janjaweed officer. They received an additional $185 to $285 for any month they saw combat — every month for some. By comparison, a Sudanese doctor working overtime at multiple jobs might earn the equivalent of $500 a month.