Sanaa – Layelle Shuja’adin, a precocious 13-year-old from the Yemeni city of Ibb, is making papier-mache masks at an art therapy workshop in the Hadda neighbourhood in Sanaa, along with 11 other children.
The artwork displayed along the veranda is an eclectic mix of happy flowers and sunshine combined with bullets and limbs, symbolic of the children’s experiences during the past six months.
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For Shuja’adin, the morning of April 20 is one that will forever be etched in her memory. In seconds, she
went from being a member of a close-knit family of four to facing the world alone.
Her father, mother and brother were killed by a bomb dropped during an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition that, since March, has been trying to dislodge the Houthi rebel group from power in Yemen.
At first, Shuja’adin was reticent and withdrawn when asked about her experiences. “I don’t like to talk about this thing,” she said firmly. But then, she recalled windows falling and children screaming.
“Nobody knew what was happening. I was at my friend’s house, in front of my home. I didn’t see anything. Even then, I thought they [my parents] were in the bedroom, and I heard my mother shouting. I understood nothing. Then I went out with my mother’s friend. Everybody left the building.”
It is not uncommon to see children standing on the highway between Aden and Sanaa. Driving on the
There's a huge denial about civilians and children being targeted. It's traumatising, and it happens everywhere.
road from one city to the other, a trip that lasts up to 12 hours, children can be spotted stationed at checkpoints late into the evening.
When asked for their parents, they either smiled or said they had none. At different checkpoints, children can be seen selling bottled water, flowers, fruit, or qat – a mild narcotic – to eke out a daily living.
At the office of Charitable Society for Social Welfare, a non-governmental organisation in Sanaa, Riyadh al-Qarr, director of the orphans’ section, said the war has already claimed the lives of more than 11,000 people, quoting figures from the Yemeni Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation (MOPIC).
Al-Qarr says the civilian casualties are higher than those stated in the mainstream press.
Meanwhile, as of September 24, the World Health Organization reported that 5,248 people have been killed and 26,191 injured during the six-month war. James Weatherill, a representative covering Yemen at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in New York, said these figures “are gross underestimates” of the likely casualties due to under-reporting.
Before the war, a report by UNICEFand Yemen’s MOPIC, in 2014 estimated a total of 600,000 children under 18 were orphans. Al-Qarr doesn’t have the latest figures of children orphaned just in the past six months, but he asserts the number could be 50,000 or higher. This number could not be independently verified.
Al-Qarr said the increase in numbers of orphans is a countrywide phenomenon, not only due to air strikes and shelling, but as a result of disease, malnutrition, and an acute shortage of medicine.
In Aden’s al-Kraytar residential neighbourhood, 11-year-old Yihab al-Tayeb stood motionless in front of his house, which now lies in a pile of rubble. “There were four of us. My two-year-old brother died with my father and mother,” he explained before scampering away.
Before an air strike on April 27, residents say they heard planes early morning, and then the strike took place at 8am. No investigations were conducted after. Nobody came except the medics.
Due to the impact on the roof of the three-storey building, neighbours in the area say it was not shelling. Younes, al-Tayeb’s father, told his neighbours’ four-year-old daughter, Miriam, to jump out of the house’s window to save herself.
She miraculously survived unscathed, but her parents and younger brother Qasim were killed.
With no access to orphanages in Aden, al-Tayeb has temporarily moved in with relatives.
Although four months have passed since the house was obliterated, the area still looks as though it was hit yesterday. Children’s school notebooks were strewn amid the rubble, and soft toys hung from the front-rooms of the fragmented walls.
“There’s a huge denial about civilians and children being targeted. It’s traumatising, and it happens everywhere,” said Sara Ishaq, a documentary film-maker conducting the art workshop.
The Right to Live Foundation (RTLF) carries out several functions as an NGO, and was initially started as an institute for children with cerebral palsy.
Over the past six months, it has taken in orphans and launched a “war emergency unit” comprising six employees that provide essential food and clothing kits to children in remote villages.
RTLF, which houses 220 children in the heart of Sanaa, has been closed for a week after the Saudi-led coalition heavily bombed the capital last Friday evening.
Safa Mohsen Ali, a project manager with the foundation, said the location is unsafe and that children have been sent to relatives’ homes in their villages.
The organisation has been trying to support the children there by sending food kits, but this is difficult given that many of the families are inaccessible and do not have electricity to charge their phones in order to be reached.
Mohsen Ali emphasised that the centre faces significant challenges in continuing its operations. Since the start of the coalition air strikes in March, funding has dried up, forcing several orphanages in Yemen to close.
RTLF has seen its workforce reduced from 81 down to seven employees. “We can’t pay the salary for teachers, drivers,” said Ali.
Back at the art therapy workshop in Hadda, Ishaq is struck by the children’s positivity and resilience. At one session, they brought in remnants of their houses that were destroyed in the explosions.
These included bricks, pieces from the kitchen, and remnants of the weapons that imploded their homes.
“They were laughing, and were trying to build something out of it [the rubble outside their homes]. I found it very symbolic of their resilience. It was like they wanted to derive some kind of hope and continuity.”
Meanwhile, Shuja’addin is coming to terms with everyday life without her parents. “Sometimes I say they are dead, no problem, they are in a better place with Allah. At times, I want them badly.” Clinging to her aunt, she added, “When they finish this horrible war, hopefully I can go back to study in higher secondary school.”
When the war planes start hovering, the sounds still make her cringe with fear. “I feel like the roof will come down and take us away. I don’t know how I feel any more.”