Carrying bloodstained backpacks, Yemeni children return to class

The absence of 42 boys who were killed in a Saudi-led attack on a school bus weighs heavily on young survivors.

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    Story highlights

    • 40 children among the 50 people killed in a Saudi-led attack that hit a school bus on August 9
    • Children return to school, with some survivors carrying their bloodstained rucksacks
    • Many students report serious mental trauma and lingering physical conditions
    • Saudi-UAE alliance has promised investigation but international pressure grows against war

    Dahyan, Saada - Excited screams used to echo through the corridors. Boys would skip and giggle, arm in arm.

    They would race across the playground, kicking footballs against the sun-baked earth, imitating their sporting heroes, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

    But on Sunday, as the school bell shrilled to mark the start of a new term, several young boys, some of them on crutches, marched silently to their classrooms with their eyes and faces pointed squarely at the ground.

    As they entered Al Falah primary school for their first lesson, artwork from last year on one of the walls was a reminder that the school was once a place of joy.

    But as soon as Abdulrahman al-Ojeri, one of the school teachers, began taking the morning register, a sombre mood swept over the room when the names of several familiar children, who should have been in attendance, were left out.

    In the summer, a Saudi air raid decimated a school bus carrying a group of boys, some as young as six, as they went on a field trip to Yemen's northern city of Saada.

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    Images of children covered in blood being dragged from the twisted wreckage triggered global outrage, and reignited the debate over the safeguards Saudi Arabia, along with its military partner, the United Arab Emirates, employ in their fight against Houthi rebels.

    As they returned to school on Sunday, some of the surviving children carried blue UNICEF rucksacks, some were still stained with blood from that horrific day.

    Hassan Hanash, a 12-year-old boy, was visibly haunted by the August 9 attack.

    He was near the back of the bus when a US-made missile landed metres away, lifting the vehicle off the ground and flinging it into a nearby shop.

    Although most of his physical injuries have healed, the emotional trauma is palpable.

    "I still don't know why the aircraft attacked us," he told Al Jazeera, his face gaunt.

    Attacking children is the lowest any party in this conflict can do.

    Meritxell Relano, UNICEF's resident representative in Yemen

    A total of 51 people, including 40 children, were killed in the attack, which the Saudi-UAE alliance had initially declared a "legitimate target".

    In the days following the raid, the alliance defended its actions, claiming it was in response to a missile being fired from Yemen at the Saudi city of Jizan some 24 hours earlier.

    But as international condemnation grew, including criticism from the alliance's main military backers - the United States and the United Kingdom - Riyadh made a rare concession, saying it would conduct an investigation, and hold those responsible to account.

    The Trump administration lauded the announcement with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praising the alliance's efforts to limit civilian casualties in a war that has claimed an estimated 56,000 lives.

    "Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations," Pompeo said.

    But his remarks were overwhelmingly rejected by survivors and their families at the Al Falah primary school.

    "Anyone who says we were a legitimate target is a liar," an angry Hassan told Al Jazeera.

    "We didn't fire a ballistic missile," he said, pointing to his small, frail leg which was wounded in the attack and continues to affect his mobility.

    Hassan Hanash and his two brothers, Ahmed Ali and Yahya, pray for their friends who were killed in a Saudi air raid on a school bus in August [Naseh Shaker/Al Jazeera]

    Since March 2015, when it intervened in Yemen's war, the Saudi-UAE military alliance has conducted more than 18,000 air raids across the country, with almost one-third striking non-military sites.

    Data collected by Al Jazeera and the Yemen Data Project has revealed that weddings, funerals, schools and hospitals have frequently been targeted.

    Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the alleged architect of the war, the alliance has also imposed a raft of punitive economic measures aimed at undercutting the Houthis' grip on power, including a debilitating blockade on the port city of Hodeidah, a vital gateway for food, fuel, medicine and other goods into the country.

    This has exacerbated Yemen's humanitarian crisis, which aid groups have decried as "choking civilians."

    "Mass starvation is a deadly by-product of actions taken by warring parties and the Western nations propping them up," Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement earlier in October.

    "The way the war is waged has systematically choked civilians by making less food available and affordable to millions of people."

    The war has also truncated children's education, with UN officials telling Al Jazeera that nearly 2,000 schools have been destroyed by the conflict, re-purposed as shelters or commandeered by armed factions.

    "Attacking children is the lowest any party in this conflict [can] do," said Meritxell Relano, UNICEF's resident representative in Yemen.

    "There is no justification whatsoever to attack children. Unfortunately, this has become a common feature of the conflict."

    'The carnage in Yemen'

    The war has received more attention recently as outrage grows towards Saudi Arabia over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist.

    In recent weeks, American and British politicians have voiced their opposition to the alliance's war campaign and pushed for a temporary halt in arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

    Writing in the New York Times, US Senator Bernie Sanders urged Congress to end what he called "the carnage in Yemen".

    "The US is deeply engaged in this war. We are providing bombs the Saudi-led coalition is using, we are refuelling their planes before they drop those bombs, and we are assisting with intelligence," Sanders wrote.

    Between 2010 and 2014, Washington sold more than $90bn of military equipment to Riyadh, and since Trump took office, the US has signed an arms deal to supply military equipment worth nearly $350bn to the Saudis over the next 10 years. 

    "I very much hope that Congress will act, that we will finally take seriously our congressional duty, end our support for the carnage in Yemen, and send the message that human lives are worth more than profits for arms manufacturers," Sanders added.

    Meanwhile, Emily Thornberry, a member of the UK's opposition Labour Party, told parliament that "a repeated pattern" was being played out by the Saudis, both in how they handled the Khashoggi killing and the war in Yemen.

    "When major civilian casualties are reported, first they deny the reports are true, then they deny responsibility," she said. "And when the proof becomes incontrovertible, they say it is all a terrible mistake. They blame rogue elements, promise those will be punished and say it will not happen again, until the next time, when it does."

    Zaid al-Humran's son Osama was among those killed on August 9.

    He had filmed the children on the bus prior to the attack and said were it not for the recording, the massacre would have gone unreported like several other crimes in the more than three-year-war.

    "Without it, people would have believed [the Saudi narrative] that they were [the ones responsible for firing the] missile launchers," he told Al Jazeera.

    Lingering trauma

    Despite the school's many shortcomings owing to its limited resources, teacher al-Ojeri said it was one of the few places in Dahyan which provided routine, with classes offering a brief respite from the horrors of war.

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    But now as term begins again, several students are unable to shake off their lingering trauma.

    "When I see my [new] teacher standing in front of me, I'm reminded of those teachers who were killed in the assault," said Ahmad, Hassan Hanash's 14-year-old brother.

    An image of Ahmad after the attack, showing him soaked in blood, highlighted the devastation being unleashed in Yemen.

    "I keep remembering when I was at the hospital and seeing all that blood and chaos around me," he said.

    Attempting to put on a brave face, the child added that he would not allow the attack to deprive him of an education, referring to several pupils who had chosen not to return to school.

    "By God, I will remain steadfast," he said.

    But with the Yemen Data Project reporting more than 101 air raids on Saada province last month alone, and one attack striking a school, Ahmad's future, like countless other Yemenis looks bleak.

    Ahmed Ali Hanash attends class at his school which lost pupils in an August 2018 Saudi-led air raid on a school bus in Saada province [Naseh Shaker/Al Jazeera]

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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