Yemen: Children of a Forgotten War
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Mauer was quoted as saying “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after 5 years.” The Republic of Yemen is at risk of becoming a failed state as a result of the fighting currently ravaging the country. It is a crisis that, sadly, barely registers on the word’s radar. More than 6,400 people have been killed and over 30,500 injured in the past year. Children are not safe anywhere and are paying the highest price. At least 6 children were killed or maimed every day over the past year, and that is only the cases that have been verified.
Since March 2015, Yemen has descended into conflict. Fighting between several different groups has put the country on the edge of a civil war. The main fight is between forces loyal to the President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Zaidi Shia rebels, called the Houthis. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia answered President Hadi’s request to intervene and has since launched numerous airstrikes on Houthi targets. Almost half of those killed during the airstrikes were civilians. The High Commissioner of the UN Human Rights Council condemned the repeated unlawful killing of civilians by the Saudi-led coalition. “In January, a leaked UN report accused the coalition of ‘widespread and systematic’ attacks against civilians. The coalition says it greatly regrets civilian deaths, which it insists are unintentional.” The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen documented 119 coalition attacks that violated the laws of war in a report made public on 26 January. UNICEF reported that in the past year at least 934 children were killed in the fighting, 61% of them in airstrikes, and an additional 1,356 were wounded.
Secondary effects of war and neglect also kill. Before the conflict, about 40,000 children under the age of five died from preventable diseases each year, but an estimated 10,000 more this past year have been lost to disease due to lack of clean water and health care. The UN says that at least 2.2 million children are suffering from or at risk of malnutrition. Even before March 2015, almost half of the 21.2 million Yemeni population lived below the poverty line with almost 16 million people in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. The World Food Programme estimated that 14.4 million people are considered food insecure and 7.6 million severely food insecure. Most of those in dire need are women and children, and “Yemen has one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world.”
Food prices spiked last September when the fighting between the Houthis and President Hadi’s supporters escalated. The national average price of wheat flour is now 55% higher than it was in the pre-crisis period. Yemen usually imports more than 90% of their food. The fighting around the port of Aden and the naval embargo has stopped most of the imports from reaching the country. Commercial imports have also decreased over the past two months. In February, only 15% of monthly fuel requirements were delivered while food imports fell by a quarter. “A lack of fuel, coupled with insecurity and damage to markets and roads, has also prevented supplies from being distributed.” Imports of fuel are essential for maintaining a good water supply. Damage to pumps and sewage treatment facilities from airstrikes have left 19.3 million people without access to safe drinking water.
The lack of supplies has caused health services across the country to decline. Safa Al-Ahmad, a BBC journalist, made it to the besieged city of Taiz, Yemen’s second largest city, at the heart of the civil war. She saw doctors struggling to decide which patients to treat with their limited supplies of medicine and oxygen and whom they would have to leave to die. The Houthis mounted a siege on Taiz and managed to cut off almost all routes into the city, thus preventing basic supplies from getting in by road. Now, the only ways around the blocks are mule tracks through the Sabr Mountains. “Everything – flour, rice, cooking gas, diesel, medicine – has to come over these trails to reach the starving and embattled people of Taiz.” Yemenis on both sides of the conflict are struggling. The city of Sa’dah lies in the heartland of the rebel Houthi north. Thousands of airstrikes have been launched on the area by the Saudi-led coalition. The damages have only left one emergency facility in the province. Last year, an ambulance and three centers run by the international medical charity Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) were hit “killing at least 8 people and depriving hundreds of thousands of access to emergency care – despite the charity providing their co-ordinates to all sides.” In January, a missile hit the Shiara emergency room, also a MSF facility, in the nearby Razah district. Getting to an equipped medical facility can be extremely difficult and dangerous for Yemenis. Yemenis do not feel safe in hospitals, and for good reason.
On 10 April, the Saudi-backed government and the Houthi rebels entered a Cessation of Hostilities. Humanitarian aid forces were able to take advantage of the cessation. A statement to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Yemen from 15 April outlined some of these efforts: UNICEF has restarted a water rehabilitation facility in the Kitaf district that provides for around 10,000 people, efforts are being taken to reopen some 100 schools in Sa’dah, vaccination teams are now able to go door to door, and three mobile health and nutrition teams were deployed in Taiz. All of this still is not enough. Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Kyung-Wha Kang, stated “I underscore that the terms of the Cessation of Hostilities not only include a halt in hostilities but also an obligate that parties allow unhindered humanitarian assistance. I remind all parties that this facilitation is an obligation under International Humanitarian Law.”
Most response efforts for Yemen remain critically underfunded. The Yemen Humanitarian Plan has only received $296 million, a mere 16% against the $1.8 billion requested, and UNICEF has appealed for $180 million to finance its programs in Yemen for 2016 but has only received 18% of that amount.