Ahmed, 13, was picking guava fruit from trees in the Al-Jahmalia district of Taiz with four friends on Sept. 18 when the bombs fell.
After trying in vain to persuade his friends into a game of soccer, he’d wandered off. Minutes later a shell, fired by Houthi-Saleh forces, struck, shaking the earth beneath Ahmed’s feet. He ran back to check on his friends, only to arrive in time to watch the youngest, Rayan, 6, take his last breath on the street. The limbs of the others, ages 15, 14, and 12, were scattered across the narrow pathway between traditional stone houses.
“At the beginning of the war, we used to get scared. But now we are used to it,” said Ahmed, the crackle of gunfire and shelling echoing in the distance. He was standing in the same street where he’d watched his friends die two weeks earlier.
Violence is so normal in Taiz, located in southwestern Yemen, that hardened responses from children like Ahmed have become common, revealing another grim reality lost in the chaos: Across Yemen, children are bearing the brunt of this war.
Two and a half years of fighting between Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition has resulted in the world’s great humanitarian disaster, and not only from airstrikes, shelling, and snipers. More than 2.2 million Yemeni children have been pushed toward starvation, with one child dying every 10 minutes from hunger and preventable diseases, according to aid agencies. Of the more than 900,000 suspected cholera cases since April 2017, 27 percent are children under the age of 5.
And if they’re not suffering from disease, starvation, or violence, Yemeni children are the victims of recruitment — an estimated 1,500 children have been recruited as soldiers since the war escalated in March 2015. All told, more than 11 million Yemeni children are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
The children of Taiz, where everyday activities like collecting water or playing soccer in the street can be deadly, feel the urgency. Battle for control of the city has raged for over two years, with much of its districts under partial siege from Houthi-Saleh forces, whose rise to power prompted a heavy air response from Saudi Arabia’s coalition. Those two sides have loosely defined the nearly three-year civil war since, with Houthi forces claiming they are fighting “daesh” — the derogatory name given to Islamic State and used as a catch-all term for their enemies — and the Saudi-led coalition claiming to defend the country’s legitimate government against the Houthis.
One hundred miles to the south of Taiz in the port-city Aden, 15-year-old Yasser survived snipers and the shelling of his home but it forced him and his family to flee in the early stages of the war. In the south of the country, Aden experienced the beginning of the war on March 19, 2015 — the day the Houthis and army units loyal to the country’s former president of 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, marched into the city sparking gun battles. Saleh loyalists in the air force then carried out airstrikes targeting incumbent president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, a leader backed by Saudi Arabia. For more than four months Aden was engulfed by fighting and besieged by Houthis who blocked food and medical supplies from entering their opponents’ territory.
Yasser’s family home is in the heart of the city, in the district of Crater — named because of its location in the middle of a dormant volcano. Houthi snipers took up positions in buildings 200 meters from his front door. In the absence of an army to defend them, local residents, known as the “Southern Resistance,” took up arms. When I first met Yasser, in May 2015, his father was recovering after being shot twice by snipers, and he was living with his family in a hotel behind the battle’s front lines.
“The snipers shoot at us if we carry toy guns,” Yasser told me.
Two years since we last spoke, Yasser still returns to the memory of the day he thought his mother had died when their hotel room was shelled. In July 2015, a ground offensive, launched as part of Saudi Arabia’s military intervention and led by its coalition partner, the United Arab Emirates, eventually pushed the Houthi-Saleh forces out of Aden and its southern governorates.
That victory allowed Yasser and his family to return to their home. But they are struggling to return to the life they knew before. Yasser’s dream is to become a doctor, but he missed a year of schooling due to the fighting. Now his school is open sporadically (dependent on teachers being paid) and operating on a shift system to accommodate a surge of students coming from other schools that were destroyed in the war.
But when it comes to education, Yasser is one of the luckier ones. UNICEF estimates 2 million children in Yemen are growing up without an education, as schools across the country are bombed by Saudi coalition airstrikes, turned into de facto bases by rebel fighters, or used as emergency shelter for displaced families.
In the Houthi-controlled capital of Sana’a, Sara, 8, lost her sister and baby brother when an airstrike hit her house on Aug. 25, 2017. She can remember in vivid detail the moment when rescuers dug her out of the rubble, as the screams of other victims nearby faded.
Sara was among the few who survived a Saudi airstrike that killed 16 civilians, including seven children — two of whom were her siblings. Two-year-old Naif and her older sister, 14-year-old Sharoug, were killed instantly. An investigation by Amnesty International concluded that an American made bomb was used in the strike.
“When I reached hospital, I realized my clothes were soaked in blood,” said Sara. Three days later she began to move her legs but still has pain in her ribs from nearly being crushed to death.
Sara, Ahmed, and Yasser’s experiences are just some of the stories that explain why UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, Geert Cappelaere, recently described Yemen as “one of the worst places on earth to be a child.”
Scarred by violence and the long-term consequences of growing up underfed is now the unavoidable legacy for an entire generation of millions of Yemeni children across the country. Few will escape the impact of this seemingly endless war that stands to deteriorate further after the Houthis and Saleh loyalists went to war with each other in the streets of the capital Monday, resulting in the death of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Those who survive having witnessed its brutality will be left with haunting memories for the rest of their lives.
“One was without a leg, one without a hand, and one with his brain spilled out,” said Ahmed, pointing to the ground where he saw his friends die. “They were all silent.”
Iona Craig is a British-Irish independent journalist focusing on Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.