Mona al-Zoraigi stands, a forlorn figure in the dilapidated kitchen of her bombed-out apartment, consumed with guilt that she cannot provide her youngest child with the one thing he has been yearning for most.
“Zakaria won’t be celebrating his seventh birthday,” she tells Al Jazeera. “We can’t afford to. The last time I even bought the children clothes was at Eid al-Fitr last year [July 2016].
“Food is more important to us.”
Al-Zoraigi has been the sole provider for her family of five since her husband, Saif, died prematurely while undergoing medical treatment for a manageable form of diabetes.
He was only 38 when his kidneys failed, and their local hospital in Taiz, Yemen’s second largest city, could not provide basic medical assistance to nurse him back to health.
“I’m all alone,” she tells Al Jazeera, choking back tears.
“We were happily married for 13 years. He was my life, my children’s protector. I feel lost after his death.”
For the past five years, the local community has tried to help whenever possible, but in the throes of war and amid a debilitating siege, resources in Taiz have been stretched wafer thin.
“Mona came to us around 18 months ago complaining she didn’t have an income and the means to provide for her family,” Maeen al-Shahari, a local official, told Al Jazeera. “She now lives off the goodwill of others. It’s a miserable situation.”
I've met parents who've had to choose between getting one child treated in a hospital or whether to feed their other child. This is the most difficult decision a parent could ever have to make.
Al-Zoraigi added: “When my kids see others eating sweets and playing with new things, they rush to me hoping I can give them the same. I can’t. I don’t know what to do.”
For almost three years, Houthi rebels have besieged Taiz, a city that has become one of the major front lines in the battle for control of Yemen.
Forces loyal to the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi have been unable to dislodge the rebels from the strategic city, which overlooks the Bab al-Mandab Strait, a narrow chokepoint through which around 3.8 million barrels of oil pass daily.
‘Everyone is a victim’
A Saudi-imposed land, naval and air blockade has also failed to deal an economic blow to the rebels who control the capital Sanaa – instead causing food prices to soar and pushing millions to the brink of famine.
“Taiz has been devastated by the war, and everyone is a victim,” Mohammed al-Ahmar, a local official in Taiz’s Madinat al-Noor neighbourhood, told Al Jazeera. “Children and the elderly are the worst affected, suffering from depression and other terrible psychological disorders.”
The conflict has taken a severe toll on Yemeni youth, with the United Nations warning that 80 percent of the country’s children are in desperate need of aid and two million are facing acute malnutrition.
“The life of a child growing up in Yemen is far from normal,” Rajat Madhok, a spokesman for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), told Al Jazeera.
“Two million children are out of school, another two million are suffering from acute malnutrition … With the ongoing crisis and dire humanitarian situation, prices of commodities have gone up, people have lost their jobs – I’ve met parents who’ve had to choose between getting one child treated in a hospital or whether to feed their other child. This is the most difficult decision a parent could ever have to make.”
Now, al-Zoraigi just prays that next year she can give Zakaria the birthday party he deserves, or at the least, a cake with some candles.