For Yemen Child Soldiers, a Refuge Mixes Play With Saudi Propaganda

For Yemen Child Soldiers, a Refuge Mixes Play With Saudi Propaganda

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MARIB, Yemen — A display on one side of the doorway holds children’s drawings of violence and gore: red scribbles of blood on pencil sketches of bombs, bullets and bodies; a machine gun firing across a stone wall into a tent; a detailed depiction in crayon of a Kalashnikov rifle.

A display on the other side holds happy visions of the future — like a boy with his foot on a soccer ball holding up a trophy, and a smiling army officer with three big stars on each shoulder.

In between is the entrance to the center for the rehabilitation of child soldiers in Marib, Yemen, financed by Saudi Arabia. A photograph of King Salman hangs on the wall.

Open a little more than a year, the center has provided up to six weeks of schooling and play in a comfortable villa for more than 200 boys enlisted by armed groups fighting in Yemen.

Almost all were recruited by the Houthis, the Iranian-allied Yemeni group fighting against the Saudi-backed forces, the center’s staff say.

But the center also doubles as a propaganda stage set, where its Saudi funders and their Yemeni allies have brought a long roster of Western news organizations to hear the children talk about Houthi abuses.

In a dusty yard behind a high wall, the center is a world away from the chaos of the dusty, overcrowded city.

Marib’s prewar population of just 40,000 has absorbed nearly 1.5 million displaced Yemenis. In squalid camps, whole families live crammed into one-room cinder block huts.

Only the luckiest children attend any school.

By comparison, the Center for the Rehabilitation of Children Recruited and Impacted by the War in Yemen might as well be a five-star resort.

Its current class of 27 dress like British schoolboys, in black sneakers and pants, with sharply creased blue-check, button-down shirts.

They sleep on neatly made beds in spacious dormitories. They spend their days studying the Quran, drawing pictures, playing soccer or relaxing in a bright parlor furnished with board games.

Each boy is given a new tablet computer as well as about $200 worth of Saudi riyals — far more than a Yemeni soldier might make in a month.

“You feel like a child here, you behave like a child,” said Taher, who said he was 15 but looked younger than 13. (The New York Times is withholding the full names of the children because they are minors.)

Another boy, Rashid, said he was about 12 when he was recruited last year by the Houthis.

But a brief stay in even the most luxurious rehabilitation center, experts say, is unlikely to make much difference to the long-term welfare of the children. It can even complicate a return home by raising unrealistic expectations.

Aid groups instead recommend returning children to their families as soon as possible, followed by long-term support and education in their home communities.

“Where the rubber meets the road is when a person leaves a center like that and returns to their family and community,” said Theresa Betancourt, a Boston College professor who has studied the problem.

At the Marib 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 he could not understand rudimentary English, and the university does not teach in any other language. Nor does it offer a doctorate in psychology.

Among the ways he treats the former child soldiers, Mr. Mekhlafi said, is “autohypnosis.”

Aid groups say the recruitment of child soldiers is widespread on all sides of the Yemen conflict, not limited to the Houthis or any one group.

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,” the agency said in an emailed statement.

With Saudi visitors watching, the staff members of the rehabilitation center stopped an interview with a boy they said had fought for the Saudi-backed Yemeni forces, not the Houthis.

Ali, a soldier for the Saudi-backed forces who was interviewed at another location in Marib, said he was 16 and enlisted at 15.

The Yemeni director of the center, Abdul Rahmen al-Qubati, later acknowledged that the 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 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.”

Saudi officials arranged the visit by The New York Times to the center in part to rebut an earlier report that Sudanese militias fighting for the coalition had also included soldiers younger than 18.

Saudi officials insisted Sudan was responsible for providing the ages of all of its fighters, and that the coalition sent home any who were discovered to be under 18.

The Saudi officials acknowledged that both Yemeni factions had recruited some children, but they argued that at least their coalition was trying end the practice.

Child recruitment “is a very important and serious issue and we hope to shine a spotlight on it,” said Saud al-Kabli, an official of the Saudi embassy in Washington. “That is why Saudi Arabia created the rehabilitation project.”

But the coalition did not allow any contact or interviews with the Rapid Support Forces, the main Sudanese forces fighting in Yemen. It is a paramilitary group drawn primarily from the janjaweed militia that fought for the government in the conflict in Darfur.

Instead, the coalition arranged visits to two small camps in Saudi Arabia staffed by a smaller deployment from the formal Sudanese army.

Maj. Gen. Ahmadan Mohammed Khair al-Awadh of the Hazem Brigade had placed a yellow sticker in a military manual to mark a paragraph that showed a rule against recruiting soldiers under 18.

But General Awadh denied any knowledge of the larger militia deployment in Yemen. “Who in Sudan told you about that?” he said. “I am only responsible for the Hazem brigade.”

As the generals and diplomats trade accusations, the Marib center is deluged with applicants.

In interviews overseen by a Saudi official, a half dozen boys under 15 said they had been lured away from their families by Houthi soldiers offering money, like a salary of $50 a month.

The soldiers invited the boys for military training or in one case asked them to help bury a dead soldier, but after that the boys were effectively abducted, they said.

The Houthis taught the boys how to use Kalashnikovs or heavy machine guns, they boys said, then put them to work carrying supplies to the front — ammunition, food, tobacco and khat, the narcotic leaf Yemeni men habitually chew.

Two boys said they had brothers fighting for the Saudi-backed forces. All said the fighting had scared them into running away, in some cases after only a month or two.

Rassas, 15, said he had joined the Houthis more than three years earlier, in late 2015, when he had been 12. He said the soldiers ordered him to help retrieve an injured soldier from the front.

“I carried him from his shoulders and someone else from his legs,” Rassas said. “Then we carried him on the back of a pickup truck to a military hospital in Sanaa, and it was at that moment I realized I had to flee.”

While doctors tended to the injured man, Rassas took a taxi to the home of an uncle, who smuggled him to Marib.

He found his mother and four siblings in a camp for the displaced. Asked if they were happy to see him, he grew speechless, choking back tears.

Moments later, the center’s staff gathered all the boys to sing for their visitors.

“We are living in peace at the King Salman Center,” they sang. “We are the builders of tomorrow.”

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