How Children Became Collateral Damage in Yemen’s Forgotten War

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis has never been worse, particularly for children: girls are being married off increasingly younger, and boys are easy prey for military recruitment. Then there are the bombs. 
April 30, 2021, 5:01pm
How Children Became Collateral Damage in Yemen’s Forgotten War
Photo: Amel Guettatfi

Taiz city, Yemen – Nasser Qasim Ahmed Mohsen was alive for long enough to see his nine year-old son Amran die in front of him. He dragged himself over to where Amran’s lifeless body lay on the sports stadium ground, ripped in two. The young boy had been bent over, tying his shoelaces in preparation for a morning of football training with his dad when a projectile hit the building above him and shrapnel sprayed across the grass. The impact was enough to kill him immediately. His dad died a few minutes later. 

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The incident took place on the 12th of December, 2020, at a sports stadium popular with young children. It’s just one of several attacks that have taken place in recent months, in busy residential areas across Yemen’s southwestern city of Taiz. 

Last month, VICE World News met eight year-old Karam Shawqi, who was playing football in the same field where he’d watched his friend Amran dying. “He was our closest friend. We used to go and have ice cream together,” says Shawqi, who was also injured that day. “I saw him in the vehicle on the way to the hospital. My father told me to look away. I told him I needed to see Amran. It was the first time I ever saw someone dying in front of me.”

Despite US President Joe Biden’s administration restarting diplomatic efforts to end Yemen’s war, this year has seen both the fighting and the humanitarian situation worsening by the day. In six long years of conflict fuelled by a bitter Saudi-Iran rivalry, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. More than 4 million have been uprooted from their homes. Crucial infrastructure like healthcare centres, roads, bridges and water systems are in tatters. And a second wave of COVID-19 is currently sweeping its way through the country. 

Children have become collateral damage in this nightmare. The war has driven up prices of fuel and basic goods, leaving one in five children severely malnourished. On a recent trip across both sides of the conflict, VICE World News witnessed babies with arms the width of pencils dying because their mothers could not afford to feed them. Girls are being married off younger and younger, so as not to burden families further. And boys have become easy prey for military recruitment. 

Almost 80 percent of Yemenis are dependent on humanitarian aid for survival, but only a fraction will receive what they need. Last month, the United Nations described a “disappointing outcome” to its annual pledging conference, where over 100 governments and donors contributed about half their targeted budget of $3.85 billion for Yemen’s aid efforts. This was less than what was received last year and more than a billion dollars short of what was pledged in 2019. The pandemic has provided donors with a plausible reason to reduce contributions, along with allegations of corruption plaguing the aid industry itself. It appears the world has grown tired of Yemen’s suffering. 

The country’s dire situation has been in freefall since 2014, when Iranian-allied Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa. This sent the Yemeni government into exile, which in turn led a Saudi-fronted, United States-backed coalition of countries to unleash a brutal bombing campaign on the rebels. 

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Both sides have committed war crimes. The coalition has carried out aerial bombardment on bridges, hospitals, markets and even a bus full of children. The Houthis have also indiscriminately attacked civilian neighbourhoods, tampered with aid distribution and recruited tens of thousands of young boys to the frontlines. 

Soldiers from the Yemen armed forces patrol areas near the frontline in Marib. Photo: Amel Guettatfi​

Soldiers from the Yemen armed forces patrol areas near the frontline in Marib. Photo: Amel Guettatfi​

But it won’t stop there. The Houthis now control huge swathes of territory and in the last few days have advanced to within five miles of Marib – a strategically important city in the north of the country that until recently was a safe haven for the displaced. An estimated 19,831 people in this area have been forced to flee their homes since February, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). 

Many of those displaced are children whose lives have been uprooted multiple times, as the frontlines continue to shift. They’re now living in makeshift camps surrounding the city, unsure when or where they might be forced to go next.  

“The impact of the conflict on Yemen’s children has been brutal and it is unclear what the long-lasting effects will be,” says Olivia Headon, IOM’s Spokesperson in Yemen. “Displaced children not only have to deal with the distress that they experience when fleeing their homes, but also major challenges in accessing aid and education.”

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Neither the Houthis or the Saudi-led coalition are eager to take accountability for their role in the disruption and chaos that haunts these children’s lives. 

IDP CAMP ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF MARIB, WHERE THOUSANDS OF YEMENIS HAVE FLED TO SINCE THE FIGHT FOR MARIB CITY ESCALATED. Photo: Amel Guettatfi​

IDP CAMP ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF MARIB, WHERE THOUSANDS OF YEMENIS HAVE FLED TO SINCE THE FIGHT FOR MARIB CITY ESCALATED. Photo: Amel Guettatfi​

“We don't want our citizens to die. They're our brothers and sisters.... We ask them to get away [from the fighting]. We will do our best to avoid them. But at the end, if something has to happen, everything has its cost,” said Hisham Sharaf Abdallah, Foreign Minister of the Northern Houthi-held territory. 

In the case of the Taiz sports stadium attack that killed football coach Mohsen and his son Amran, the two competing administrations in the north and south both denied any responsibility. VICE World News together with the Yemeni Archive Project spent weeks gathering and analysing evidence at the site’s attack, where we matched projectile remnants to a specific type of artillery shell and traced the launch site to one particular hill in the mountainous terrain surrounding Taiz, which is clearly controlled by the Houthis. Still, we were met with denials swiftly followed by silence. 

Like thousands of other Yemeni families, Amran’s mother Iftikar Ali Mohammed is left grieving her losses and doubts that she’ll ever get the recognition she deserves, let alone an apology. 

“When Amran died, I felt like something inside me died. Like I died with him,” she says. “There is no heart left unbroken in Yemen… Our hearts were broken from the inside. We were shattered.”