In 2014, Iran-backed Houthi rebels (also known as Ansar Allah) launched an offensive that took over most of northern Yemen, an event which was followed by a series of negotiations under pressure from neighboring countries to back off. One year later, on March 26, 2015, operation Decisive Storm, a military campaign spearheaded by Saudi Arabia that was aided by nine other states, was launched to push back the Houthis and their allies, namely forces loyal to the toppled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, after the Houthis and Saleh took over northern Yemen and forced the internationally-recognized President Abd Rabou Mansour Hadi and his cabinet to flee the country.
Since then, every household in Yemen has had to face a tragic event, be it a dead relative or a disappeared loved one, a broken dream or a destroyed home, a halted career and deferred plans.
And like in every war, women and children are the most vulnerable sections of any society to be most affected by armed conflicts, and this includes Yemen’s 12 million children.
Begging for a Living
Prior to 2014, most of these children had a safe and stable life; they attended school and were properly fed. Things were not perfect, but considering that Yemen is one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, things were acceptable.
Then, an armed conflict erupted and thousands of children were being recruited by the warring parties; schools and homes were being bombed. Nearly 900 children have been killed and more than 1,300 injured, according to UNCIEF numbers that were released on March 29, 2016—a year after the war began.
“Parties [in] the conflict have recruited children as young as 10-years-old into the fighting,” UNICEF claims in its report.
The number of children who are involved in direct fighting has increased to five folds compared with pre-2014 figures, according to Seyaj Child Protection Foundation, an expected result given the dozens of fighters being killed daily in various battlefields.
And while some children are considered luckier than those who have been drafted to fight the war, they, too, are fighting a battle of their own: A battle against poverty.
Thousands of children, some who have lost their fathers in the war, have been internally displaced alongside their mothers, to other provinces in Yemen, but mostly to the capital Sana’a.
The International Displacement Monitoring Center estimates that there were over 2.5 million internally displaced people in Yemen as of December 31, 2015, and that number has risen steadily since then.
Under the burning sun, a pale-skinned and dehydrated child, no more than 10, speeds from one person to another asking for handouts. Maybe the man who is buying qat (a narcotic herb) along the Hadda Street can spare 10 rials, or perhaps the large, rich-looking man who is entering the grocery shop.
As I monitored the child, I started noticing his technique. He extends his hand to shake someone else’s, and when a passerby humors him, he asks for charity. Upon leaving the store, his potential benefactor does not bother extending his hand, but ignores the boy, yet the boy is undeterred. He follows the man and kisses his arm as high as he can reach, but the passerby just keeps on walking.
With a vigor of a boy on a mission, he moves to an older woman with her teen daughter walking by her. The teen girl feels sorry for him and hands him a 50-rial note, his eyes light up, he thanks her as if she just saved his life, then he quickly moves to the men at the door of the grocery shop. Without giving himself enough time to put the money in his pocket, he just hides it behind his back and asks for a handout, but as expected, both of them respond with a “May Allah provide for you,” which translates to a polite “no.”
I followed him for a few minutes, as he was rejected left and right by people who could have easily spared 10 rials, but in this dire economy not many people feel financially secure enough to give any amount of money, no matter how small.
Then it was my turn, the boy saw me behind him and extended his hand trying to shake mine, we shook hands and I signaled him to sit next to me on the side walk. I asked him about his name and where he lives and to my surprise he said “Bab Al Yemen,” which is very far for a child that looks 10-years-old. He proudly added that his name was Khalid.
He added that he comes in at noon and stays until 8 p.m.
He is usually not alone, as his older brother Mohammed accompanies him. However, he wasn’t around this time as his brother was “up there near the bridge.”
Khalid is restless while sitting next to me, as if I am wasting his time, but he does not say so. I ask him who awaits him back home every night? “My mother is back home,” he answers “with my two little brothers, and my two little sisters.” Unfortunately, Khalid’s mother does not have a job.
But where is your father? I curiously pushed on.
“He died in Haradh,” an area in Hajjah province near the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
After his father died, Khalid moved with his family into a rented home in Bab Al Yemen. That is a family of seven, including Khalid.
As a direct result of the war in Yemen, “there are psychological and behavioral effects on children that manifest when they play and in their daily interactions with each other,” says Ahmed Al Qurshi, the general manager of Seyaj, a local nonprofit child protection organization.
“There is more hostility and bullying; there is hatred between them on territorial and sectarian basis that did not exist before,” Qurshi further tells Newsweek Middle East.
Most children in Yemen have heard loud explosions and felt their homes shake during airstrikes. They watched their mothers scream and their loved one’s killed, either in battlefields or under the rubble of their homes. All of this is bound to leave a lasting psychological impact.
“There is a huge increase in child recruitment [for war], early marriages and not joining schools or dropping out of schools,” which also has a negative impact, Qurshi tells Newsweek Middle East.
Poor families, which constitute the majority of Yemeni society, cannot afford to send their children to school in such times of financial crisis. Even if they can manage it, they prefer to send them to work in the streets, selling tissues, CDs, or simply cleaning the windshields of cars during traffic stops.
Yemeni Women Suffer in Silence
Meanwhile, many women in Yemen, who usually depend on the men to provide for them—either as fathers or husbands—usually do not possess an education or skills beyond their household chores.
Being illiterate and dependent on their fathers to support them, the only change that happens in many Yemeni girls’ lives is getting married, usually as a teenager, sometimes even younger.
According to data retrieved from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 45 percent of Yemen’s females are illiterate.
After marriage, a Yemeni girl begins a new life, which is not much easier than her previous one, but at least provides companionship with a new life partner. Soon after, within the first year of marriage, she will give birth to her first child and she changes from being a teenage wife to a teenage mother.
Most Yemeni couples are expected to bring a child into this world within the first year of marriage, and it has to do with a cultural mindset, i.e. proving the husband’s manhood, even if having a child would put pressure on the husband who cannot afford to live in a house of his own, let alone provide for a wife and a child.
Alia Ahmed was 18-year-old when she married her cousin Hussein Yahiya, a photographer, and went to live with him and his parents and sisters.
Nine months later, they had their firstborn Raghad, a healthy baby girl. Everything seemed to go fine. Hussein and Alia were so optimistic that nine months later, she was going to be pregnant again.
Being a photographer during times of war, Alia knew that her husband was in danger, but she never imagined that he would be killed.
Two weeks into Alia’s second pregnancy, on September 19, 2011, during the Arab Spring uprising in Yemen which toppled Saleh, Hussein was working in ‘Change Square’ in Sana’a, when he was shot by a sniper, twice — once in the head and once in the shoulder. Hussein did not die instantly, and paramedics were able to stabilize and send him to a nearby hospital where he was in a comatose state for four days before dying.
Upon realizing the horror awaiting her as a widow and a mother of two, Alia took a drastic choice.
“I tried to kill myself, by ingesting any medicine I could get my hands on,” she says, but that did not work.
She only became sick and was taken to the hospital and then returned home, after which she jumped off a balcony; she survived yet again and was hospitalized in time. “I felt like there is no place for me in this world” explains Alia, adding: “I didn’t want her [Alia’s unborn daughter] without her father.”
After recovering in the hospital, and like any widow or divorcee in Yemen, Alia returned to her parents’ home, which she describes as “three rooms, a hallway, and a bathroom. We turned the hallway into a kitchen.” At first look, this may not have been such a bad place to go back to, especially when the house is owned by her parents.
Alia’s family is fairly large and already poor; her return placed more pressure on all of them. “We are six sisters, four brothers, my two daughters and my parents.”
That is a total of 14 family members living in three rooms on a salary of a retired army solider which is a meager monthly sum of $134.
Malak, Alia’s second daughter, has heart problems; she is often sick and requires expensive treatments.
As Alia’s finances grew thinner, she spoke with her friends who agreed to give her a job at a tailoring shop run by women.
When Alia told her father, his response was not surprising considering just how patriarchal Yemeni society is, and his exact words showed how he felt about the whole idea. He said: “Just die where you are.”
Many conservative Yemeni families reject the idea of their daughters going to work and mixing with men.
Widows and divorcees are not desirable wives in Yemen, and the last man that proposed to Alia, through a female mediator, was relatively rich and from a good family. The only problem was that he was older than Alia’s father, and Alia rejected him.
Several other men have proposed to Alia, who is still 23-years-old, but there was another problem; the men who had proposed to her were from “tribes” whom her father refuses to mix with, since he is from urban “Sadah.”
This is an issue in Yemen. People from the Sadah do not marry their daughters off to different tribes, and tribes do not marry their daughters to people of Al Mazainah, who predominantly work as butchers and hair-dressers and beat drums in wedding parties.
According to the U.N.’s latest estimates, there were more than 10,000 deaths in Yemen since early 2015. Most of those killed were breadwinners for women such as Alia. The U.N. has said this number is bound to rise because there are unrecorded deaths in areas where there are no hospitals.
Meanwhile, young men and women have not been spared the brunt of war, due to the economic situation, closure of embassies and downsizing of staff in companies.
In times of peace and when Yemen is safe and stable, young men and women can barely find the means to fulfill their dreams and aspirations, thus many of them left the country. But now, with all doors closed, and no means of financial survival, the situation is pretty much dire.
Throughout the years many Yemenis have chosen to go to Saudi Arabia and work there. However, since operation Decisive Storm was launched last year, the Saudis have tightened security around their borders, and getting smuggled into the Kingdom has become nearly impossible, and thousands of young men have been stuck in a country that was not accommodating during times of peace, let alone in times of war.
As for the lucky young men and women who won government grants and scholarships and traveled abroad to study and start a career, they are now facing a dilemma.
More than 800 Yemeni students, who were studying abroad and had financial aid sent to them by the Ministry of Higher Education, were suddenly cut off without any forewarning.
On February 2, 2016, Yemen’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research took several measures that were widely condemned by private universities all over Yemen. These measures included the withdrawal of Higher Education program licenses and imposing huge fines on some universities including the University of Science and Technology (UST).
The UST refused to pay the YER100 million ($399,850) fine imposed by the Ministry of Higher Education, according to Abdulatif Haider, who recently graduated from UST.
The ministry retaliated by refusing to attest the certificates of the students who graduated from the UST in 2015-2016, and that’s when Haider’s problems began.
“Lots of obstacles stood in the way even though I was qualified for it [the scholarship]. I graduated top of my class, I knew a second language and had other certificates.” But despite all that, Haider was facing a problem outside his control, since his certificate was not attested by the ministry, it was not acceptable by the Turkish scholarships authority.
Haider blames the current situation in Yemen for delaying his dreams.
“The political and security situation of course had a big impact or rather a large impact or perhaps it was probably the main reason [for not winning a scholarship] since all the embassies and attaché offices left the country,” he tells Newsweek Middle East.
Haider married a year ago, but he still cannot find a job to support his growing family, as he is expecting a child.
The scholarship would have made his life easier. “It was my only hope, I suffered a lot when I did not win it,” says Haider. “All my family are in our home in Ibb, I am here alone in Sana’a chasing a job or a scholarship,” he adds.
Haider graduated top of his class from UST, one of the best private universities in Yemen. He had paid $3,200 for his tuition fees, a hefty sum for a BA degree, in such dire times.
At present, Yemen is on the brink of famine, according to a number of NGOs and the U.N., the economy is failing, employees’ salaries—both in the public and private sectors—have been delayed, and poverty is worse than ever, and the vicious armed conflict in this Arab country has to stop in order to allow its people to survive.