Yemen's Children of War: Tomorrow's Fighters?

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Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Children displaced by fighting in northwestern Yemen attend school near the al-Mazraq refugee camp, near the northwestern Sa'ada province, Oct. 19, 2009

A six-year-long war in northern Yemen has created a generation of children who know of no other way of life except war. As families flee from the north to escape the fighting, memories of constant aerial bombardments, the widespread use of child soldiers and the sight of dead bodies still haunt the children, who make up around 60% of the roughly 300,000 displaced in the area's makeshift camps. What vision will they bring in coming years to a nation that many feel is at the crux of regional and global security?

The afternoon sun is a deep orange as young boys play volleyball in the dust of a school playground on the outskirts of Amran city, the first stop for many fleeing the fighting in neighboring Sa'ada province. In one of the dark classrooms, displaced children ages 2 to 15 scramble around screaming and playing. Many sit on the floor playing chess, a game the volunteers say calms the children's nerves and helps them drift away from the horrors they've witnessed. But huddled in the corner, three small sisters sit in silence, all staring down toward the floor, oblivious to the confused revelry around them. Their minds are still on their homes back in Sa'ada.

"Some of the children have completely stopped speaking," says Nadia Yahya, a supervisor for psychotherapy who has been working alongside a UNICEF project to set up child-friendly spaces, like the school, where displaced children can try to return to a state of normalcy. "If they can't speak, we encourage them to play first and hope eventually they will start to talk again." When they do, says Yahya, "most of them talk about dead bodies in the roads, they talk of tanks. They know all the names of the weapons and the individual parts: AK-47s, RPGs and Canons." Children regularly recount their experiences with vigor and emotion, shouting and screaming as they explain the body parts they found near their houses. The younger children speak of "flashes in the sky" and then blood.

The biggest problem Yahya has faced is the violence — some children, she says, fight, bite and kick when you approach them. For many of Sa'ada's children, violence has been the focus of their entire lives. The central government based in the capital Sana'a has been fighting an on-again, off-again war since 2004 with the Houthi rebels, a Zaidi Shi'a group that accuses Sana'a of religious, political and social marginalization. Saudi Arabia became involved in the conflict in November after rebels killed Saudi border-patrol guards. Saudi Arabia responded with a series of airstrikes and artillery bombardments. An August UNICEF study found that 1 in 10 displaced children had been injured as a direct result of the fighting from both sides and experienced "high levels of psychosocial stress." Half of the children interviewed had depressive symptoms and 30% were said to have suffered from a "loss of hope." When asked if he enjoyed his new life in Amran, 12-year-old Ibrahim Ahmed from Sa'ada didn't want to talk about his new life. His thoughts were still on his old one. "Our country is destroyed," he says with indignation. "May Allah curse the Houthis."

The government and rebels signed a truce in February to end the sixth round of war, code-named "Operation Scorched Earth." But in July, fighting flared up again when government-allied tribes and the Houthi clashed, bringing the frontline south from Sa'ada into Amran and threatening to start a seventh round of war. Amran residents say the Houthis want to move the conflict here, as weapons are widely available in the region. At the gun souk in Amran's old city, an arms dealer lays out assault rifles for the consideration of buyers. At his home, he says, a stock of bazookas, grenades and even antiaircraft guns gather dust in his basement.

Even the Houthis are worried about the psychological stress that the fighting is putting on children. When UNICEF Yemen representative Geert Cappelaere met with rebel representatives, they told him their biggest concern was the distress in children. "In my entire career, I have never heard that before," says Cappelaere, who has worked in other war zones before. "It was a real eye-opener."

Iman Suleman, an 18-year-old refugee who volunteers with child-friendly spaces, says, "The children have awful dreams and if they hear a plane or even a nearby factory — they start to scream." Suleman and her colleagues gave the children paper and crayons, but like the children of Darfur, they drew what they had lived through. "They wouldn't stop drawing blood," she sighed.

But psychosocial distress is not the only issue. Child labor and trafficking, exposure to land mines and unexploded ordnance, and the use of child soldiers were reported by displaced children and their caregivers. "The number of children who saw people killed is staggering. It is abundantly clear that all parties, the Houthis and the government-sympathetic tribes, are using child soldiers," says Cappelaere.

And as the young boys leave to fight, the young girls from Sa'ada are being married off. Even in Yemen's peaceful regions, child marriage is widespread, particularly in rural areas, where poor parents see marriage as financial security for their children. Some girls are married off as young as 8. In Sa'ada, the uncertainty of displacement and war has meant families are having their girls married younger and younger, fearful that brothers and fathers, the main breadwinners, may be off fighting or might die. Doctors in Sa'ada are reporting that in 30% of births, the mother is under the age of 15. With an 85% illiteracy rate among the displaced, there are stories of young mothers feeding their month-old children Pepsi and 7Up.