When I was 5 years old, I experienced war for the very first time. It was 1986 in Aden, South Yemen, and political rivalries turned into violent conflict. One day, the house where my mom, sister and I were staying was badly damaged after a rocket hit a nearby military vehicle. I remember looking at what used to be the living room, and the wall and windows were gone. My mom picked up my little sister, grabbed my hand, and started running. There was no time to put on shoes. I stepped on glass and other sharp objects, cutting my feet.
The memory still haunts me. But it wasn’t the only time I felt afraid in Yemen. When violence flared up in 2011, I sat with my two sons, ages 8 and 2, in the hallway of our apartment, surrounding them with pillows for protection. We were in Sanaa, the capital city, and armed conflict was breaking out all around us. I could hear explosions in the distance.
My children and I left Yemen in 2012 and relocated to Lebanon for my husband’s job, well before the latest conflict broke out in 2014 between President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and his allies, and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the allied rebels known as the Houthis. While my family is safe, millions of Yemeni children are being killed, injured and traumatized in a war that is not of their making.
According to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, at least six children have been killed or maimed every day over the past year in Yemen, and about 900 children have been killed. Those child fatalities are among the more than 6,500 civilian deaths since March 2015. Today, an estimated 2.2 million children in Yemen need humanitarian aid such as health services, education, water, shelter and food. Approximately 320,000 children face severe malnutrition.
The current peace talks are almost wrapping up, with news that the U.N. envoy to Yemen has proposed a framework for a soon-to-be-announced solution. But we see few signs of progress for the children who have been dragged into this war. We must find a way to address their needs within the peace process, be it at the negotiating table or on the ground.
Those needs do not just include keeping them safe from gunfire and bombs. Children have been forced to become active combatants in this latest conflict. The U.N estimates that children under age 18 make up a third of the fighters in the current Yemeni conflict. And UNICEF has documented cases of children recruited by all warring parties to fight in the war since March 2015, some as young as 10 years old. The majority of children, 72 percent of 762 documented cases, are being recruited by the Houthis, says a report by the U.N. Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict.
Many children are tricked into becoming soldiers in what seems to be a highly organized process. A Yemeni human rights activist told me that his NGO has documented at least 22 recruitment locations in community halls, homes of local leaders, even schools. The activist, who reported this data confidentially to the U.N.’s Human Rights Commission for fear of retribution if his identity were revealed, said children are offered between $100 and $200 per month and are also lured by the promise that they’ll carry weapons and show how brave they are.
The U.N. Security Council Resolution 2216, one of the main reference documents in the current peace negotiations, calls for ending the use of child soldiers. Yet the issue is not adequately addressed in the agenda. In fairness, there are many pressing concerns for all sides, such as withdrawing militias and other armed groups from cities, handing over heavy weapons to the state, interim security arrangements and the restoration of state institutions. Children are mentioned briefly in only one area of discussion at the peace talks: freeing prisoners, including captured child soldiers.
Every now and then we see the results of these efforts to free child soldiers. In June, the government announced the release of 52 children captured by coalition forces at the Saudi border. These children, recruited by the Houthis, were carrying weapons and laying land mines. The children were returned safely in coordination with Yemeni authorities in the Hadi government and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
But returning them safely is not enough. Yemen desperately needs properly funded and staffed programs to help stop the recruitment of children, disarm child combatants and reintegrate these children into society by working with parents, helping them cope with trauma and returning them to school.
The World Bank already has programs that do that. In fact, they’ve been rolled out in countries where child soldiers are rampant, like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This month, the Bank agreed to a $50 million grant for Yemen for two years to cover programs that provide cash assistance for the poor, labor opportunities for unskilled workers, and fight infectious diseases — but nothing so far has been done to help child combatants.
I want these children to be as fortunate as my own kids. One day — after my family and I relocated to Lebanon from Yemen — we were having lunch in a restaurant in Beirut. My 8-year-old son, who I had huddled with in that hallway in 2011, raised his arms above his head, took a deep breath and said, “This is the life.”
Rasha Jarhum is the founder of Yemeni Youth For Humanitarian Relief and a 2016 Aspen New Voices fellow.