WASHINGTON – Today, Fadia Najib Thabet lives in Vermont, where she is attending an American university. But for many years before leaving her country, she helped boys who got caught up in the violence through recruitment, kidnapping and even some at the urging of their parents.
Thabet left her native Yemen in the wake of armed conflict between the government, Houthis rebels, and terrorist groups– including the local affiliate of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), or Ansar al Sharia.
For many years, Thabet worked with the United Nations and other non-government international agencies to help boys as young as nine years old regain their lives and rejoin their family and larger community. She also helped young girls who married terrorists in a country with high poverty and no laws banning child marriage.
“When we are approaching any case, we are not just only collecting evidence, we are trying to approach those cases as a human being,” Thabet told Breitbart News during her visit to Washington, D.C. last week to be honored at the International Women of Courage event at the State Department. “We are not considering them as cases, we’re considering them as kids.”
“So it’s a long relationship that we are trying to build,” Fadia said.
The relationship is built by offering the children and their families counseling, financial aid and in some cases prosthetics for boys who lost limbs or suffered other disabling injuries on the battlefield.
Most communities welcome back their boys, Thabet said.
“Because they are children, it is really emotional and moving,” Thabet said. “So they will forgive very quickly.”
“They know they’ve been brainwashed,” said Thabet, adding that terrorists easily attract children with promises of money, weapons, and status.
She said that the Yemeni government had agreed to a U.N. Plan of Action to make 18 the legal age for military service, but the latest outbreak of war that began in 2015 has put off its implementation.
“We had our allies in the government and we also had our enemies,” Fadia said. “Nothing now functions because of the war.”
According to Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2017, children have been devastated by the armed conflict in Yemen:
The UN secretary-general included the Houthis, government forces, pro-government militias, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and, for the first time, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition on his annual ‘list of shame’ for grave violations against children during armed conflict.
The coalition was responsible for 60 percent of the 785 children killed and 1,168 children wounded, and nearly half of the 101 attacks on schools and hospitals, according to the report.
Houthi forces, government and pro-government forces, and other armed groups have used child soldiers, an estimated one-third of the fighters in Yemen. The UN found in 2015 that 72 percent of 762 verified cases of child recruitment were attributable to the Houthis, with an overall five-fold increase in recruitment of children and a shift towards forced or involuntary recruitment.
Under Yemeni law, 18 is the minimum age for military service. In 2014, the government signed a UN action plan to end the use of child soldiers. Without an effective government in place, the action plan has not been implemented.
The Middle East Eye reported on Friday that al-Qaeda’s presence is growing in Yemen, including in the city of Taiz, but the makeup of those involved in the conflict is complicated.
Ten groups are fighting under the banner of the Popular Resistance in Yemen, including the Salafis, Muhamashin, and al-Qaeda, all united against the Houthis rebels.
“Taiz is not a stronghold of al-Qaeda and we did not hear any mention of al-Qaeda in Taiz before the war,” a source told the MEE. “But there are some members of al-Qaeda who have come to Taiz from the southern provinces during the last two years.”
“Now they have spread to the east of the city,” the source said.