Yemen’s government officials, human rights activists, religious figures and journalists have warned families living in Houthi-held areas against sending their children to the militia’s summer camps, and have accused the Iran-backed group of wanting to recruit these young people for their army.
This comes in the wake of the movement’s leader, Abdul Malik Al-Houthi, ordering his supporters to open these camps in areas under their control, where he pledged to “immunize them” against misconceptions about his organization and Islam.
Houthi officials have reportedly said that 57 camps were launched in Sanaa alone, which are expected to attract hundreds of students during the upcoming summer vacations.
Yemeni officials and activists say that the Houthis are using these gatherings to radicalize and indoctrinate minors, so that they can prepare them to become soldiers.
“Your child that you will send to the Houthi summer and military course is a time bomb that will kill you tomorrow,” said Ghamdan Al-Yosifi, a Yemeni journalist, labeling them “factories for manufacturing explosives.”
A similar warning to parents had been issued last year when the Houthis launched these centers. The Houthis have claimed that thousands of children graduated with religious education from these camps.
However, critics have said that the children were brainwashed, taken to graveyards and trained to use weapons.
Abdul Kareem Al-Medi, a Yemeni journalist, said that the recruitment of children threatens the country’s fragile peace.
But the Houthis argue that their summer camps are meant to teach the correct recitation of the Qur’an, counter misconceptions about Islam, and prepare the new generation to fight their enemies, including Israelis.
“The summer courses are a step and an initiative that prevents youth from wasting time during the summer holidays, immunizes them from false cultures and enables them to master the Holy Qur’an and to recite it correctly,” Jalal Al-Ruwishan, a Houthi military official, was quoted as saying while visiting a summer camp in Sanaa on Wednesday.
However, Yemen’s information Minister Muammar Al-Eryani accused the Houthis of trying to turn young people into ideologically driven soldiers, and shared images of dead child soldiers and children inside the group’s camps.
“We call on parents, sheikhs and tribesmen in Houthi-controlled areas to boycott child recruitment camps, preserve their children … refrain from sending them to fuel their absurd war and to implement (an) Iranian agenda,” he said on Twitter on Thursday.
But given the Houthis’ harsh treatment of those who disobey their orders, many Yemenis believe that parents might still allow their children to sign up for these camps.
“While some adults join these cultural courses because they agree with the ideology, others participate in order not to lose employment benefits or humanitarian assistance, or out of fear of reprisals for non-participation,” the experts stated.
They added that almost 2,000 Yemeni children, some as young as 10, recruited by the Houthis, were killed in fighting between early 2020 and May 2021, and children received military training or were taken to military sites during summer courses.
Mohammed Jumeh, Yemen’s permanent delegate to UNESCO, said that those children who were killed on the battlefields were initially indoctrinated and recruited inside the Houthi camps, and blamed parents for not heeding warnings.
“Protecting children from extremist ideology and priesthood is the responsibility of parents in the first place,” Jumeh said.
Yemeni military analysts argue that the continuing recruitment of children by the Houthis show that they are getting ready for a new round of military operations, despite their announced commitment to the UN-brokered truce.
“Summer centers and cultural courses are epicenters of sectarian incitement (and) mobilization in preparation for new rounds of conflict and endless battles,” Brig. Gen. Mohammed Al-Kumaim, a Yemeni military analyst, said.