Yemeni children are paying the highest price in the war that has been going on since 2015. There is a long-standing market for these little human beings in Harad, located on the Western border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. After being sold by their families, they are passed on to another market, more amenable to the needs of the conflict. Instead of being trafficked to Saudi Arabia to deal drugs, children are trafficked at the Mukalla Harbour, south-east of Yemen, to Gulf countries like Kuwait, to serve as labour or for sexual exploitation. But this is not the only violation carried out on children in this war. The Houthis employ them as a military force in the areas under their control and force the families to give them up so they can be on the frontline. Failure to comply means tribal revenge, blood feud and random killings.
Report by Sheeba Salam from Yemen
Translated by Valentina Viene
© all rights reserved (Report and photos) to Whispering Dialogue and Sheeba Salam
It’s Maghreb time, the evening prayer. If Mohammed doesn’t come, after about 20 minutes she gets on her smartphone. “I have already explained to Mohammed that he shouldn’t be out after this time and I warned him to stay away from checkpoints and bad company”. Aisha lives in Hatarish, the northern part of Sana, with her husband and 4 kids. Three of them are married. Their home is a family residence on an unpaved road running along an artery that leads to the outskirts, an intermediate land between the chaos of urban markets and the wasteland where prickly pears are alternated with rows of dried muscat grapevines. Mohammed comes home when the sun shines sidelong on the last hens rummaging in the courtyard and on the rubbish bags scattered about outside the house which have not been collected since the war deteriorated. He squeezes through the door and rests on the sofa. If the electricity is still working and there is enough diesel in the generator he gets chatting on Whatsapp.
“I’m worried about Mohammed and the kids his age”, his mother says, hinting at his 15-year-old son, who’s not exactly a child anymore and not yet an adult. “Our area is safe but the families are worried. News often reaches us that children his age are kidnapped and disappear. Some are seen at rebels’ checkpoints, overdosed on qat. If things go wrong, families find out straight away about their death: the Houthis take them to the border. ” Yemeni teens like Mohammed are potentially fresh troupes, young, inexperienced, fearless and worthless. The factions involved in the war know this and do their best to co-opt them. Mohammed doesn’t comment on his mother’s worries but confirms where the “fear of the void” can lead a young lad to in war: “Luckily the school is open again but in the last 6 months no one went there. I was bored to death. You had no option: either you went to play in the street or, if you believed in it, you would get serious. One of my friends got serious and I haven’t seen him since.
A recent report from Amnesty International on the recruitment of child-soldiers on the frontline fighting on behalf of the Houthis corroborates Aisha’s worries and her likes. According to the testimonies gathered by the international organization, many families agree to the recruitment after being promised 20-30 thousand riyal per month ( 80-120 dollars), if the child become a “martyr”. In the “recruitment package” are included posters that have to be kept permanently on show in the quarter, in case of death, and for tribal honours. Needless to say, the destination is paradise either for their young age or for the heroic death. UN agencies also provide evidence of more than 15 thousand children recruited by both factions from the beginning of war in March 2015, when 60% of children were killed or wounded by the Saudi-led coalition and 20% by the Houthis. Human Rights Watch reported the child-soldiers’ recruitment well before the beginning of the war. But war has worsened the condition of minors in Yemen, the poorest Arab country, which has always been rather harsh. Lack of access to water and food, malnutrition, disastrous hygienic conditions, low levels of education, early marriages are only some of the most critical aspects of the chronic state of emergency, particularly for the people living in the countryside, in the slums, and for the muhamasheen (the dark skinned pariahs in Yemeni society), for the refugees in the Horn of Africa and the inhabitants of the Northern provinces affected by local wars since the beginning of 2000.
Mohsin comes from there, from Sadaa. The area was afflicted by internal conflict well before the beginning of the current war. He’s been stuck for 2 years at the Centre for the Protection of Childhood in Haradth where he ended up after having been sold and trafficked to Saudi Arabia. We had already met him in 2014, when he was still a child. Today he is a skinny teen. “My mother passed away”, he said, “and my father moved to Saudia Arabia for work. He left my 5 sisters and me alone. We only have an old aunt who takes care of us. One day, an acquaintance from the village picked me up, telling me he was going to take me to my dad in Riyadh, but I ended up here in Haradth, on the border with Saudi Arabia, and he forced me to beg on the street. The next morning, I saw a blind man on the side of the road where I had found shelter for the night. He asked me to help him cross the road. I did. As soon as we crossed it, a car came. They loaded me on the car and the blind man vanished. I ended up in Saudi Arabia where a man taught me how to deal drugs. After a month, police caught me and sent me straight back to the border. I spent two nights in prison, then I was repatriated and put here. For a year they have been looking for my relatives, but none has turned up. Then the war burst and I stayed here. To tell the truth, I would never leave from here.” Mohsen is one of the 500 children a month who, according to UNICEF, since 2015 have been snatched from their poor families or sold by them for a maximum of a thousand dollars, to cross the border and conduct illegal activities in Saudi Arabia. The war didn’t stop the child trafficking: it has only moved it elsewhere. Today Haradth, the Ciudad Juarez of Yemen, has an ironclad border. You can’t cross to Saudi Arabia. Rather, you need to worry about not being hit by a bomb dropped by the coalition planes. The busiest border is the sea, Mukalla harbour, south of the country. According to the NGO Muna Relief Organization, here hundreds of children aged 6 to 15 are kidnapped for sexual exploitation. According to the organization, the traffickers rely on the AQAP network (Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula), which used to control Mukalla’s town and harbour and had established an independent caliphate. The NGO bases the report on a number of testimonies coming from Abyan, a city and governorate where it has always been supported. In the area surrounding Mukalla harbour, an NCO of the Yemeni police (Yemen Central Security Forces) whose identity has been anonymized for security reasons, stated that “the children who are trafficked in the prostitution market are sent to rich buyers in the Arabian Gulf. They set out from Mukalla harbour towards Ethiopia or Djibouti and from there, to the Gulf countries or directly from Mukalla to the destination of the client. Al-Qaeda earned millions of dollars in this trade and war sped things up”. Nabil Fadel, director of Yocht, a Yemeni NGO conceived to fight child trafficking, shrugs his shoulders in his Sanaa office. “Before the war”, he says, “these crimes were not in the spotlight because police forces were focussed on fighting terrorism. Now it’s worse than ever. In the past, the families used to be collaborative to an extent, even though they would refute the accusations. Now they don’t even reply. In this country, the fear of social stigma is stronger than the war”.