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Schools of war: Yemen's education system seized to train new fighters

Exclusive: Pro-government forces are converting rural Taiz schools into military camps to boost war against the Houthis
New pro-government recruits drill in Taiz (AFP)

Al-Turbah, Yemen - Awadh al-Thobhani stands on a table as dozens of recruits gather round for their first lessons in war. The former Yemen army captain, with a pistol slung on his hip, has come to Taiz province to train the next generation of the "Popular Resistance" to fight the Houthi movement.

This building in rural of al-Turbah, 70km from Taiz city, was not always a military base. Before Thobhani and his men came it was school, and some of those around Thobani were students. Now they are preparing for war.

"I have been fighting the Houthis for about eight months, and when I knew that there were a large number in Taiz who wanted to join the resistance, I decided to leave the battle and return to my village to recruit new fighters," Thobhani told Middle East Eye.

By the end of January, he says, the mass of men gathered here at Abdulraqeeb Abdulwahab school will be sent to the frontlines.

Thobhani's task is tall - while training lasts for 10 hours a day, for which recruits are paid $5, the vast majority of men are raw and, by Thobhani's own admission, will not be professionals when they leave for battle.

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"Right now not all of the recruits have Kalashnikovs, and we do not train them in different kinds of weapons," he told Middle East Eye. "But when they join the battle, they will learn how to use other kinds of weapons and they will get Kalashnikovs."

It is a damning indictment on peace talks in Switzerland between the Saudi-backed Yemen government and the Houthis, which spluttered to nothing earlier this month. With a ceasefire in tatters and fighting intensifying in Taiz and other areas of the country, both the Houthis and forces loyal to President Adb Rabbuh Mansour Hadi are rushing men into battle.

Awadh al-Thobhani lectures new recruits (Anonymous)

The drills at Abdulwahab are hardly an outlier - since November, 10 other schools in rural Taiz have been taken over by the Popular Resistance for use as military camps, according to a source in the local education office.

It is a move that threatens to not only extend the fighting, but also engulf peaceful rural areas in the violence.

Last Thursday, the Houthis fired two Katyusha rockets at al-Ahd al-Gadid school, another in al-Turbah that is being used by the popular resistance. Two children and two women were injured as the missiles fell short and hit their houses.

Aden Fadhl al-Rabei, a political analyst and the head of Madar Strategic Studies Centre, told MEE that the warring sides usually use rural areas to recruit new fighters. "If the Houthis know the camps of the resistance, definitely they will target them."

He added that schools were being taken over by both sides for use as military camps. 

"Both sides use them for training, not only the resistance," he said. "The Houthis are using schools in rural areas of Imran province and other northern provinces and have forced the students to join the war." MEE has not been able to verify if students were forced into service.

Such a strategy will also have a long-term effect on the youth of Yemen, as hundreds of students are forced out of education and school infrastructure is targeted.

The source inside the education office told MEE: "The warring parties must let the students study, and they must stop using schools as military camps - this step will make the schools targets."

However, Abdullah Saeed, another trainer at Abdulwahab school, said the war against the Houthis must take precedence over everything else.

"The resistance does not have another place for the recruits, but the students can study at other schools, so the education office should not bother us," he told MEE.

Many residents do not share his views.

One women, Um Ayman, who lives near Abdulwahab school, said: "The residents of al-Turbah are not Houthis, but they are not loyalists to Hadi. We are independent people who want to be safe and keep our area far from the conflict.

"If the recruits are not here, the Houthis will not target al-Turbah. The resistance would be held responsible for any fighting in al-Turbah."

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