Saudis under fire for using child soldiers from Darfur, offering money for them to fight in Yemen
According to the New York Times, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been engaging in the practice of hiring child soldiers from the Darfur, Sudan region who have already lived through and fought in a civil war in their own country. The article profiles the experience of Hager Shomo Ahmed, a 16-year-old Sudanese boy who was recruited to fight for Saudi Arabia when he was just 14, when the Saudis dangled a $10,000 carrot in front of him and his family. His mother was against him going all the way to Yemen to fight in yet another war, but because his family needed the money her concerns fell on deaf ears.
In an interview at the Sudanese capital city of Khartoum, Ahmed told reporters for the New York Times that “Families know that the only way their lives will change is if their sons join the war and bring them back money.” The United Nations has declared the war in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with a blockade enacted by the Saudis and their allies in the United Arab Emirates causing the deaths of 85,000 children and around 12 million more people are starving, according to humanitarian groups. The Saudis claim that they are fighting to save Yemen from a group supported by Iran, however, in order to keep the war going, they are using riches from oil to lure children who are characterized by Sudanese soldiers as desperate survivors of a long and bloody civil war.
Ex-soldiers say that for close to four years there have been 14,000 Sudanese militiamen who have been embedded with the Saudis fighting in the region. Almost all of these Sudanese soldiers are from the city of Darfur, which is the site of genocide and warfare over land and resources that has displaced over 1.2 million people and killed 300,000 people. Most of those soldiers hail from the Rapid Support Forces, otherwise known as the Janjaweed, the group blamed for the systemic rape of women and girls, indiscriminate killings, and other war crimes. These same soldiers now lead deployments in Yemen but are much more structured.
Some Sudanese families are so desperate for the money that they bribe militiamen to take their children with them, many ranging in age from 14-17. Five fighters who have returned from fighting in Yemen tell the New York Times that children made up around 20 percent of their units, while two of them told the reporters that children made up 40 percent of their units. Another soldier named Ahmed, who requested that his full name be withheld out of fear of retaliation, told the Times, “The Saudis would give us a phone call and then pull back. They treat the Sudanese like their firewood.”
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has gained valuable allies as a result of this positioning, which has made his last few years easier following many years of relative political isolation. The United Nations has declared Bashir’s government a state sponsor of terrorism for the last twenty years, and the International Criminal Court issued warrants for his arrest, which charge him with directing the war crimes. The war in Yemen has allowed Bashir to get support from the Saudis and Emirates which he has used to put pressure on Washington to improve relations.
But, as Hafiz Ismail Mohamed, a former banker, economic consultant, and critic of the Saudi Arabian government tells the New York Times, “People are desperate. They are fighting in Yemen because they know that in Sudan they don’t have a future. We are exporting soldiers to fight like they are a commodity we are exchanging for foreign currency.”