Yemen’s children are paying the price in the country’s civil war
By Jason Lee
Iman is still recovering after being injured in an airstrike. (Save the Children: Ali Ashwal)
Many Australians may not know where Yemen is, let alone realise the conflict in Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian emergency.
I have been working in Yemen for more than a year and have seen first-hand the devastation facing millions of people — many of them children.
The equivalent of Australia’s entire population is in desperate need of emergency aid in Yemen, in a civil war that’s been raging for close to four years now.
In March 2015, a long-running political crisis between the Ansarallah movement and Saudi-backed government parties escalated into violence. Yemen was already the poorest nation in the Middle East, but the war has proved catastrophic.
And it’s very much a war on children.
Here are some of their stories:
Ismail, 7: ‘I couldn’t get better’
On August 9, Ismail was catching the bus to school when a bomb was dropped on it, killing 40 children.
“I am seven-and-a-half, in grade two. We weren’t aware of anything until the rocket hit the bus. One of my friends was hit and died. Three more were injured — including my cousins Kasem and Hasan. Hasan kept running and running, until they caught up with him. They found him in Difwan. They say he’s gone crazy.
I wasn’t conscious until I was at hospital. At first, I couldn’t get better, I couldn’t at all. But after a week or two, I started to get better. I had a fragment right next to my eye and a fragment in my leg — they put me to sleep and removed it. My foot is broken and fractured there, twisted there and broken near my toes. There’s shrapnel in my little toe.
Luckily, I found my friends — all of them. I found Younis bleeding, but they said he is fine, thank God. They stitched up his forehead and there’s a fragment in his arm. That’s it, they told me.
War is not good. Everybody dies in it. The war is a curse. I wish it could stop now.”
Ismail would like to be a doctor for other children when he grows up. (Save the Children: Mohammed Awadh)
Sara: ‘We searched everywhere, but couldn’t find my son’
Sara’s 12-year-old son Khaled was on the bus with Ismail when it was hit by the airstrike.
“Khaled left in the morning in the Eid clothes his father had bought him. My heart was anxious — planes had been flying round us all morning, round and round. I woke up to prepare breakfast, but my son had already left to take the bus.
I took a veil with food wrapped up in it for his breakfast and followed him.
While I was in the taxi, there was a blast. Then again, a second time, another noise.
Suddenly, I saw people hurrying to the bus.
What is wrong? What happened? They said the bus was destroyed and there were no kids left.
Some people said “Save them!” Some people said “Carry them!” But whenever I got close to the bus, they wouldn’t let me approach it.
We searched everywhere — in mortuaries and in the wreckage, but we couldn’t find my son.
Then someone said there were three injured children in Altalh hospital. There were many people there — everyone was looking for their kids.
A stranger took Khaled to hospital in the boot of his car. (Save the Children: Mohammed Awadh)
We took the cover off his face. He was all burnt. There was a drip in his hand. “The boy is thirsty and hungry,” I said. “I didn’t give him breakfast.”
We spent Eid in pain. We spent 22 days there. I can’t describe my feelings.
Today I am appealing to the whole world to keep the port open, so that injured and hurt people can get out and to stop the airstrikes on children.
They are children — what did they do? They study — they don’t hold guns or missiles, right?”
Ranya, 12: ‘I prayed every day this marriage wouldn’t happen’
With the country’s economy collapsed, Ranya’s sick father sold her as a bride to pay off his debts.
“My name is Ranya, I am 12 years old. I have four brothers and four sisters in addition to my sister-in-law who we stay with.
Two years ago we lived in a rented house in Al-Qaida city but because our house was near one of the government buildings we fled because of expected airstrikes. A few months later the building was hit. I felt happy we fled home at the right time but I feel scared when I hear the sound of aircraft.
My favourite subject is reading. I used to wear an old school uniform and bag which made me feel sad when I see my friends with new school uniforms and school supplies. If I was the school principal, I would provide school supplies for free.
Sometimes we eat only one meal. When my father fails to sell his product we all get hungry at home. When I see my siblings starving and crying, I feel so sad and wish I could feed them.
There was a time when my father failed to pay rent for two consecutive months and he owed big amounts of money to people who started knocking on our door when my father was sick at home. Our life conditions were the worst ever and suddenly my father told me that he will get me married to a 27-year-old man who offered to help him with money in return.
I did not say anything however I felt sad, cried and felt like my life was getting dark. I did not agree but I was afraid of my father and at the same I time I wanted to help him. I felt happy when I got my engagement ring because my father got the money and paid the people he owed, but I was praying every day this marriage does not happen.
I was supposed to get married at the end of June. However one week before the wedding party the Save the Children team visited us at home and talked to my mother about the effects of early marriage. They managed to convince her and then my mother talked to my father and later on talked to the groom who was good and understood our point of view — the marriage was cancelled. At that moment I felt like I brought my life back and Save the Children provided us with financial aid which changed our life.
My wish is to finish my studies. I dream of becoming a doctor when I grow up.
I once joined a first-aid training in my village and I liked it but the trainer asked for me to get a note book and pay $YR2000 ($AUD11) as a training fee but I could not get the money so I stopped going. I always dream of having our own house and people stopping asking for their money from my father.”
Iman, 6: ‘I love to play with my friends’
When Iman’s father was coming home from work on June 26, he saw smoke billowing up from his house. Running inside, he found her lying on the ground, crying out “I’m dying daddy”. He rushed her to the hospital where she is recovering.
“My name is Iman and I’m six years old. I’m in hospital because I hurt my leg in an airstrike. The airstrike happened when I was playing with my younger brother in the garden.
I felt a sudden pain in my neck and heard a terrible sound. Luckily the others were inside the house so weren’t injured like I was.
I have two brothers who I love so much.
I love to play with my friends, especially in my grandmother’s garden. My favourite things to eat are oranges and apples.
When I grow up I want to be a teacher but for now I just wish the war would end.”
Haitham, 20: ‘I saw people burning but didn’t realise it was my own family’
Wafa, 4 and Shadia, 2 were travelling home with their parents following Eid celebrations on June 19 when a bomb hit. Their uncle Haitham, 20, watched the airstrike unfold, leaving both girls with shrapnel throughout their bodies.
“My sister, brother-in-law and nieces were all on the bus and I was following them on a motorcycle. An airstrike hit a military truck directly in front of the bus, which also caused damage to the bus. My sister and brother-in-law were killed instantly.
I saw people burning but didn’t realise it was my own family.
I picked up the phone to get in touch with my relatives but their phones were off.
I suddenly realised that the people injured could be my family. I was extremely shocked. I tried to get everyone who was injured to hospital as quickly as possible, with the help of local people in the area.
Since the incident, my four-year-old niece Wafa keeps waking up in her sleep and shouting, “Mum and dad burned, they all died, we all died”.
My nieces will live with their grandparents in Zabid even though their grandfather has been unemployed for two years — he used to work as a porter in Hodeidah port [which is now suffering an escalation in violence].
The war on children
According to UNICEF estimates, one child aged under five dies every 10 minutes in Yemen from preventable causes, more than 50,000 children each year.
The children of Yemen have watched their friends and family members die before their eyes, leaving many with mental challenges that could last a lifetime. But last year there were only 40 psychiatrists for a population of more than 28 million.
As the conflict has worsened, the country has seen the worst cholera epidemic ever recorded, with nearly 1.2 million people infected, including 350,000 children under the age of five. There have also been outbreaks of diphtheria and measles, putting enormous pressure on an already collapsed health system. The salaries of exhausted health care staff have not been paid since 2015. There is little, if any, access to vital medicine and clean water is extremely scarce.
Hunger the silent killer
Malnutrition rates have also increased alarmingly in recent months with more than 400,000 children at risk of severe acute malnutrition, the most extreme and life-threatening form of undernutrition. In the past year alone, Save the Children and its local partners have treated nearly 80,000 children for malnutrition across Yemen — but this is not enough.
Since the war escalated in 2015, the average annual income in Yemen has more than halved and a failing economy and collapsing currency have seen the cost of basic food items nearly double.
This economic collapse has become a silent killer. Just last week I was in Hodeida, the port city that is currently under siege. At a centre that provides supplementary feeding for malnourished children, I met Saba, a young mother to three children. In the past year, she lost her 7-month-old baby to fever, and her youngest boy, who is now 10 months, is suffering from severe malnutrition — weighing just 4.25kg. That is half the average weight of a healthy 10-month-old. The family is surviving on just one meal a day.
Teachers not paid for two years
Formal education has also been disrupted due to teachers not receiving their full salaries for two years and children being forced into work to bring home money to their desperate families. There is a grave risk that an entire generation will face an irrevocable setback in their lives, meaning the country will take decades to recover from the ravages of war.
Just last week, while I was stuck at the checkpoint entering Sana’a, I spoke to five children aged 10 to 14, who were begging for money from passing cars. When I asked them what they thought about their future, all but one said that they had no future. They were just looking to make it through the day.
Australia must work with other nations to help bring an immediate end to the conflict. The future of Yemen depends on the development of its children into healthy, happy adults. Anything short of that is a dire reflection on the international community in 2018.
Jason Lee is the deputy director of programme operations for Save the Children in Yemen. We have changed the names of the children and their families for this story.