Yemen’s Children at Risk
May 25, 2015
The people of Yemen are living in fear and hunger as rival forces battle for control of the country. Houthi rebels have pushed the government into exile and seized major cities. Saudi Arabia has stepped in, orchestrating air strikes on Houthi targets. More than 1,800 people have been killed in the last 2 months. At least half a million have fled their homes. We’ll meet a man who’s helping some of those most at risk-- Yemen’s children. But first, a look at life in a country ravaged by war.
Officials with aid agencies have been asking Saudi leaders to call off the air strikes. They say they can’t deliver humanitarian help while the bombs are falling. They negotiated a ceasefire two weeks ago, but it lasted just 5 days.
Islamic extremists are exploiting the unrest. Members of the Islamic State group have been attacking mosques and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has stepped up its activities there. The United Nations says at least 1,820 people have been killed since March. 115 of them were children.
Even before the conflict flared, life was a struggle for many in Yemen. It’s one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. The World Food Programme says almost half the population is going hungry or at risk of hunger, and the problem is getting worse. Yemen usually imports close to 90 percent of its food, but the fighting is making that difficult. Education is suffering too. At least 30 schools have been destroyed. Authorities have been forced to close more than 3,500 others.
A 9-year-old boy says he can’t sleep because of the sound of bombs and warplanes flying over his home. He says he is afraid and hopes the war will end soon so he can go back to school and study. A 7-year-old girl says she and her sisters get very frightened when they hear the gunfire, and they are afraid they will die.
Kenji Ohira, an education specialist with UNICEF joins Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.
Beppu: Mr. Ohira, you were in Yemen until late March, but UNICEF left when the airstrikes began. How is UNICEF conducting relief operations now?
Ohira: Yes, we left Yemen at the end of March, and then we moved to Amman in Jordan, where our regional office is. That’s where we’re working remotely for Yemen, by communicating with our colleagues in the field in Yemen.
Beppu: I assume it’s not easy to work in this remote way.
Ohira: Yes, it’s very difficult because there are national colleagues, and they themselves have difficulty, they’re also affected by conflict so I can’t contact them in a timely manner. I send them an email, but they can’t respond. I call them but they sometimes can’t communicate with me or with us in a timely manner so it’s very difficult, yes.
Shibuya: From what you know, can you tell us about the present situation?
Ohira: Yes, almost 2 months have passed since the onset of airstrikes and the situation has never changed since then. What’s happening is there is lack of water, lack of electricity, lack of food, lack of fuel, lack of cooking gas. So for example, when it comes to food, Yemen imports 90% of food from outside the country.
Beppu: 90% of food, so basically all?
Ohira: Yes, but because of the conflict, nothing can be allowed to enter the country except humanitarian aid so that’s very critical for Yemeni people. Another thing is fuel. Fuel is now more than 5 times its cost prior to the conflict and without fuel, they can’t produce water, because water needs to be pumped up and that’s very critical in this situation. So we did some support during the 5-day humanitarian pause last week. But it was just 5 days, so it was very limited in terms of reaching the people in need.
Beppu: Airstrikes are going on. Are the people running away from their homes?
Ohira: Yes. We officially now confirmed somewhere around 550,000 people are what they call IDPs-- internally displaced persons. That’s the official figure. So if we talk about unofficial figures, this number must be much higher.
Shibuya: The children in the report mentioned they want to go back to school. How is this conflict affecting the children?
Ohira: For example, malnutrition is one of the issues in this country. Prior to the conflict, more than 850,000 children under 5 years of age were already malnourished. This situation is only getting worse because of the conflict. Another thing is education. Again, prior to the conflict, 1.6 million children were already out of school, and because of this, an additional 1.8 million children were forced to be out of school. So this means almost 50% of school-aged children in Yemen are forced to be out of school so it’s a grave concern for the Yemeni future because education is very important. When it comes to the number of deaths of children, we confirmed 135. We also confirmed 260 people who are maimed. Again, these are just innocent people so we are very concerned, yes.
Beppu: Talking about children, there are reports that say some children were used as soldiers by the forces. What can you tell us about that?
Ohira: We confirmed that 159 children are officially what they call child soldiers, and out of this number, 85 children were forced to be child soldiers because they were abducted by people concerned with the conflict. So it’s a very sad situation.
Beppu: Why do the forces use children? Is there something that makes them an easy target to be exploited as soldiers?
Ohira: I think probably because of the Yemeni culture. In their culture, even those in their mid-teens can be considered adults. The Yemeni society allows people to carry guns, which is quite common. So it’s the kind of situation that would easily allow children to be soldiers.
Beppu: There was recently a 5-day humanitarian pause, a ceasefire. I assume organizations like UNICEF have been asking for it to go ahead also. What is your position on the ceasefire and what do you think the international community should do right now to alleviate the plight of the people there?
Ohira: First of all, we would like the international community to pressure the concerned parties to stop the war immediately, otherwise we can’t do our work. Yes, we did manage to provide some support in the 5-day pause, but that wasn’t enough. We need a longer term, longer humanitarian pause. Of course, ideally it should be a ceasefire but if it’s difficult in a short time in the near future, a humanitarian pause is another option.