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YEMEN: Children Dragged Into Dangerous Protests

Yazeed Kamaldien

SANA'A, Apr 27 2011 (IPS) - Children are increasingly facing frontline risks at Yemen’s anti-government protests. Parents are bringing them to demonstrations in the belief that they too are necessary for sacrifices in the revolution against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Boys join the protests at Change Square in Sana'a. Credit: Yazeed Kamaldien/IPS

Boys join the protests at Change Square in Sana'a. Credit: Yazeed Kamaldien/IPS

Inside Change Square as it has come to be called, the main protest site in the capital city Sana’a, young boys roam around freely with little adult supervision. A 12-year-old with a couple of other kids said he felt safe. “We are happy that we are here.” The boys said they have been at the sit-in demonstration site since mid-February with their fathers and brothers.

The boys took up the protest slogans in full swing. They raised their fists and chanted: “The people want regime change”. The young boys were also chewing the mild narcotic plant Qat, like the older protesters staying in hundreds of tents at Change Square.

They failed to understand they were in danger. Child casualties across Yemen at clashes between anti- and pro-government factions now run into hundreds.

Earlier this month the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) office in Yemen and one of its local non- governmental partner organisations Seyaj reported 662 child casualties between Feb. 18 and Apr. 8. Twenty-four children were killed, and 31 injured by live ammunition.

Besides, “injuries due to physical violence were sustained by 47 children, while 552 suffered injuries caused by tear gas. Moreover, eight children have been arrested or unlawfully imprisoned,” Seyaj reported.

Unicef has urged the Yemeni government to “abide by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as international human rights and humanitarian law, whether the country is in a declared state of emergency or not.” Yemen’s parliament had passed emergency laws in late March, and military presence in urban areas was heightened.

Children at Change Square are usually accompanied by parents, but announcements from the stage about missing children, or children missing their parents, are now commonplace.

Alia Saleh has five children; three sons and two daughters aged two to 12. She brings her children to the protest site daily.

“The president’s soldiers killed my husband in Marib province and that’s why I am here. I want my children to die like their father died for this country,” said Saleh. “I can’t leave them at home. I can’t go any place without my children. I have to come here with them. I want them to be like their father.”

Abdul-Karim al-Sanfani is another parent who brought his children along to the protest. He has been coming to Change Square with his wife, two sons and daughter. His children are all below ten.

“I can’t come alone to the protest. I bring my family with me. The children tell us that they don’t want to go to the park. They want to come to the protest. Children can come here any time,” said al-Sanfani.

“We have a lot of young people who are here. This shows that we don’t fear anyone. We want to send a picture to the world that we don’t fear killers. We will bring our families to the protest. I can even leave my children here and go home. They will be safe. We feel safe and we can’t leave the protest.”

Unemployed and single Ghamdan al-Hamadi from Sana’a was walking with his two-year-old niece at Change Square, the child’s face painted in colours of the Yemeni flag. “We have the army to protect the children,” he said. He was referring to General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar and his First Armoured Brigade troops who joined the opposition dissidents in late March amidst a string of defections.

But he acknowledged it was not always safe for children. “Some children come to the square on their own and without permission from the organisers. They should come here with their parents. It is the responsibility of parents to make sure that their children are safe.”

Fatima al-Bakri at the square says the protests are not safe for children. “They should be kept far away from the protests. If I had children I would not bring them here.” Neither parents nor security personnel were addressing child safety issues adequately, she said.

“I don’t think that parents really want their children to die. They just feel that they are no better off than their fathers who were killed at protests. Because of that they are ready to sacrifice even their most precious children for freedom.”

It is easy for children to enter Change Square without adult supervision. The checkpoints are there only to prevent persons from entering with weapons.

The defected military men also monitor protesters. But they do not aim primarily to protect children. They are also not fully trusted, after reports of harassment of women at the protests.

International lobby group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused General al-Ahmar of recruiting child soldiers to protect anti-government protesters. It said in a statement mid-April that it had “encountered dozens of armed soldiers who appeared to be younger than 18 years old.”

HRW said it had “interviewed 20 soldiers in Sana’a who gave their ages as 14, 15, and 16, and said they had been serving in the army for one to two years…President Saleh’s opponents should not perpetuate the problem by using children for security on the field of protest.”

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