The perpetual suffering of Yemen's children

The perpetual suffering of Yemen's children
6 min read
22 December, 2022
In-depth: Eight years of fighting, malnutrition, and disease have claimed the lives of thousands of Yemeni children, while a stalled peace process means there is no end in sight.

Saeed Mohammed, 15, was grazing his goats in the Alrahaba district of Marib to the northeast of the capital Sanaa on 15 December.

While following his herd, the teenager accidentally stepped on an unexploded shell. It went off, killing him instantly.

The brutality of the war in Yemen has ruined the lives of all groups in society, especially children. From 2015 to September 2022, the military conflict claimed the lives of 3,774 children and injured 7,245 more, according to a recent statement by UNICEF.

UNICEF noted that this was the official figure the organisation was able to verify, but that the true number is likely to be far greater, with countless cases of child deaths and injuries going unseen and unreported.

For nearly eight years, children have paid a high price in Yemen's war, and the tragedy looks set to continue. This is due to three factors: the attitudes of warring sides, the stalled peace process, and the remnants of unexploded devices in conflict-stricken territories.

"For nearly eight years, children have paid a high price in Yemen's war, and the tragedy looks set to continue"

Eight years of conflict have done little to soften the stance of the country's warring sides. Child victims of the war, part of the wider suffering of Yemenis, are not enough to dissuade them from pursuing their political goals with violence.

The Houthi group, which controls the capital Sanaa and almost all Yemeni northern provinces, has responded by accusing the UN of simply talking about the victims of war without taking the necessary and practical steps to address the humanitarian tragedy.

Talat al-Sharjabi, the spokesperson of the Houthi Supreme Council for the Administration and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said their statistics do not match the UNs.

According to the UNICEF report, Saudi-led airstrikes were responsible for one-third of the 11,000 child victims who were either killed or injured. Houthis dispute the accuracy of this number.

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"Our statistics show that 9,000 children were killed and injured as a result of direct airstrikes," said Sharjabi in an interview with the Houthi-run Al-Masirah TV channel.

He claimed that the UN does not discuss the direct cause of the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, namely the "aggressor countries" in the Saudi-led coalition that have been leading a war on Yemen since 2015.

The rhetoric of the warring sides demonstrates their willingness to continue fighting. This impedes the peace process, putting civilians, especially children, at further risk. Today, the sole effective cure is political stability, which has evaded Yemen since civil strife began in 2015.

 "Ultimately, only a sustained peace will allow families to rebuild their shattered lives and begin to plan for the future," said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell.

Yemenis dig graves for 29 children, who where killed when a Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit their bus the previous day, in the Houthi stronghold province of Saada on 10 August 2018.
Yemenis dig graves for 29 children, who were killed when a Saudi-led coalition airstrike hit their bus the previous day, in the Houthi stronghold province of Saada on 10 August 2018. [Getty]

Although the UN and the US have been leading extensive diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the civil war between the Iran-backed Houthi group and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, a significant breakthrough remains out of reach.

The single achievement was the six-month truce that expired on 2 October this year. Almost three months after the end of the truce, the possibility of a "new conflict remains real," the UN envoy to Yemen told the Security Council on 13 December.

Any sudden surge of violence will unequivocally bring Yemeni children an extended cycle of suffering.

"Far from a past phenomenon, child recruitment in Yemen is a present and ongoing practice that will continue as long as the whirlwind of violence continues"

Child soldiers

Yunis, 16, dropped out of school two years ago and joined the Houthi group. Now he calls himself a fighter for the "sake of the nation". He had been stationed in Marib and Aljawf provinces, where bloody confrontations between the Yemeni government and the Houthi group were frequent.

"It is not hard for those at my age to be fighters," Yunis told The New Arab. "If anyone knows how to deal with rifles, understands the commander's directions, and dares to shoot the enemy, he can fight regardless of age."

The UNICEF report indicated that parties to the conflict had recruited 3,904 child soldiers. Yunis is one of the thousands of Yemeni youngsters who have been directly involved in fighting since 2015.

Yousif, a 14-year-old fighter, is also fighting for the Houthis. Last month, he was on a battlefield in Marib alongside his father, Mohammad Hassan, who was killed. Yousif was injured but survived.

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"The Houthis promoted the father as a supervisor, and he said 'jihad is a duty on everyone, including Yousif.' That is why he went to the battlefield in Marib with his son," one of the family’s relatives told The New Arab.

Far from a past phenomenon, child recruitment in Yemen is a present and ongoing practice that will continue as long as the whirlwind of violence continues. To protect children, local and international action is vital.

Efforts from foreign governments and international bodies in the form of pressure on the Yemeni rivals to prioritise talks over weapons and distance children from fighting are needed. The measure of success is whether both sides can be flexible enough to offer concessions for effective peaceful solutions.

Without protection and support, Russell emphasised that the misery of Yemeni children will last.

"If the children of Yemen are to have any chance of a decent future, then the parties to the conflict, the international community and all those with influence must ensure they are protected and supported," she said. 

A woman holds a malnourished child at a treatment centre in Yemen's northern Hajjah province on 5 July 2020. [Getty]
A woman holds a malnourished child at a treatment centre in Yemen's northern Hajjah province on 5 July 2020. [Getty]

A humanitarian crisis

The military conflict and incessant fighting are not the only things taking a heavy toll on children in Yemen. Hunger and diseases have claimed many lives and left more with irreparable health damage.

Around 12.9 million children, nearly three-quarters of the country's population, need humanitarian protection and assistance. Roughly 2.2 million children are acutely malnourished, including 540,000 children under five, meaning they are struggling to survive, according to UN estimates.

As for the number of war fatalities, UNICEF's figures differ from those of the UN Development Program (UNDP). The latter put the number of deaths in Yemen at 377,000 from 2015 to 2021. It estimated that 70 percent of those deaths were children, caused by airstrikes, hunger, displacement, and disease.

"Even if the end of the war is near, its fallout will still haunt millions of children across Yemen for years to come"

Mohammed, the teenager who lost his life this month in an unexploded shell blast, will not be the last victim of this war. Thousands of child soldiers like Yunis will continue to be manipulated, brainwashed or tempted by financial rewards. They will keep going to the battlefields to face death or injury.

Countless others will suffer from ailments due to the dysfunctional health system, and hunger because of the humanitarian crisis.

Amidst this bleak scenario Yemeni children have endured over the past eight years, "hundreds of thousands more remain at risk of death from preventable disease or starvation," said Russell.

Even if the end of the war is near, its fallout will haunt millions of children across Yemen for years to come. 

The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.