Fighting alongside militia groups in Yemen are thousands of Sudanese children, The New York Times reported Friday — paid by the government of Saudi Arabia to put their lives on the line.
The United Nations has called the war in Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. An intermittent blockade by the Saudis and their partners in the United Arab Emirates has pushed as many as 12 million people to the brink of starvation, killing some 85,000 children, according to aid groups.
Led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudis say they are battling to rescue Yemen from a hostile faction backed by Iran. But to do it, the Saudis have used their vast oil wealth to outsource the war, mainly by hiring what Sudanese soldiers say are tens of thousands of desperate survivors of the conflict in Darfur to fight, many of them children.
At any time for nearly four years as many as 14,000 Sudanese militiamen have been fighting in Yemen in tandem with the local militia aligned with the Saudis, according to several Sudanese fighters who have returned and Sudanese lawmakers who are attempting to track it. Hundreds, at least, have died there.
The socioeconomic turmoil in Darfur in the aftermath of its civil war has left desperate families vulnerable to offers such as that coming from the Saudis.
Some families are so eager for the money that they bribe militia officers to let their sons go fight. Many are ages 14 to 17. In interviews, five fighters who have returned from Yemen and another about to depart said that children made up at least 20 percent of their units. Two said children were more than 40 percent.
“People are desperate. They are fighting in Yemen because they know that in Sudan they don’t have a future,” said Hafiz Ismail Mohamed, a former banker, economic consultant and critic of the government. “We are exporting soldiers to fight like they are a commodity we are exchanging for foreign currency.”
The Times noted that recruiting soldiers from Sudan has shielded the Saudis and Emiratis from casualties in the war — a benefit enhanced by the decision to have Saudi commanders communicate with Sudanese troops remotely, thereby avoiding the battle lines.
“The Saudis told us what to do through the telephones and devices,” said Mohamed Suleiman al-Fadil, a 28-year-old member of the Bani Hussein tribe who returned from Yemen at the end of last year. “They never fought with us.”
“The Saudis would give us a phone call and then pull back,” agreed Ahmed, 25, a member of the Awlad Zeid tribe who fought near Hudaydah this year and who did not want his full name published for fear of government retaliation. “They treat the Sudanese like their firewood.”
What is the benefit to Sudanese fighters?
They were paid in Saudi riyals, the equivalent of about $480 a month for a 14-year-old novice to about $530 a month for an experienced Janjaweed officer. They received an additional $185 to $285 for any month they saw combat — every month for some.
Their payments were deposited directly into the Faisal Islamic Bank of Sudan, partly owned by Saudis. At the end of a six-month rotation, each fighter also received a one-time payment of at least 700,000 Sudanese pounds — roughly $10,000 at the current official exchange rate.
By comparison, a Sudanese doctor working overtime at multiple jobs might earn the equivalent of $500 a month, said Mr. Mohamed, the economic consultant.
Saudi officials have denied they are recruiting children from Sudan:
A spokesman for the Saudi-led military coalition said in a statement that it was fighting to restore the internationally recognized government of Yemen and that coalition forces upheld all international humanitarian and human rights laws, including “abstaining from child recruitment.”
“The allegations that there are children among the ranks of the Sudanese forces are fictitious and unfounded,” the spokesman, Turki al-Malki, said in the statement. Saudi officials said their soldiers have also died in Yemen, but declined to disclose how many.