An eye witness to Yemen’s forgotten war has revealed the trauma faced by children on a daily basis in a crisis described by the UN as a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
Fatima Al Ajal is a Yemeni who works with Save the Children in war-torn Sana’a, the nation’s capital city.
The 32 year old spoke to The Ferret amid urgent calls for the UK to stop arming a Saudi-led coalition accused of war crimes.
Al Ajal said that more than 700 children have been killed since last March when the war escalated with at least another 1,1oo young people injured.
Some 21 million Yemenis including 10 million children – 82 per cent of the population – are now in urgent need of humanitarian aid.
The main fighting in Yemen is between forces loyal to President Abradbbuh Mansour Hadi and and those allied to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee Sana’a last February.
The conflict also involves al-Qaeda groups in the Arabian peninsula and a faction linked to the so-called Islamic State.
A coalition led by Saudi Arabia began air strikes last year on Houthi targets after President Hadi asked for help.
The coalition comprises of five Gulf Arab states plus Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan.
Speaking from Sana’a during a lull in air attacks, Al Ajal said: “The situation here is critical and the humanitarian problems are getting worse.
“If you go round the city of Sana’a you will see many buildings destroyed by airstrikes. Markets, shops, schools and medical facilities have been bombed.”
“Everything is damaged or destroyed by airstrikes or fighting on the ground. This has affected children and families terribly and cut the essential services we need to survive. We don’t have the basics to survive anymore.”
Airstrikes by coalition warplanes – some of which were built in the UK and drop Paveway IV missiles made in Scotland – are constant and Al Ajal said the noise of jets terrifies youngsters.
She added: “They suffer psychological problems from hearing the warplanes. When children hear the noise of a plane they think it is coming to kill them.”
“These children need urgent treatment. Children are the most vulnerable in this war. They are traumatised.”
“More than three million children do not go to school. They don’t go because schools are damaged or because they had to leave their homes and are internally displaced persons.”
“Many schools cannot function and children are afraid to go to school because they are targeted by bombs. Health facilities are also bombed.”
Save the Children says that more than 1500 schools have been forced to close and 174 have been totally destroyed by air-strikes.
Another 611 schools have been so badly damaged they are unsafe for use.
Al Ajal works with Save the Children to provide food and emergency medical help through mobile health clinics.
However, she and her family must move around Sana’a regularly for security reasons.
She said: “We have nine children in our wider family and we move around all the time. I am in one of the hotspot areas just now where bombing is happening everywhere and I expect to lose my life any moment. It’s a nightmare.”
“The last two weeks have been crazy with airstrikes. The bombing even continues at night and many homes have been targeted with people killed.”
“There has been no electricity at times for months and there are no basic services. There are just bombings all the time. We are trying to help children and their families through different projects. We are trying to cover their basic needs.”
Pressure has been mounting on the UK Government to stop selling bombs to the Saudi-led coalition including Paveway IV missiles produced by Raytheon in Fife.
MPs were told recently that 207 civilian structures had been targeted by air-strikes including hospitals and mosques.
They included four Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) hospitals and an Oxfam warehouse.
The UN says there have been 119 “clear violations” of international law raising questions over UK arms sales, the role of UK military advisors in Yemen and British complicity in alleged war crimes.
More than £1bn worth of bombs, missiles and rockets were sold by the UK to Saudi Arabia over just three months last summer.
But the UK Government has refused to suspend arms exports and successfully helped Saudi Arabia block an independent inquiry into war crimes by the UN.
Campaigners giving evidence to Westminster’s International Development Committee at the end of January highlighted the paradox of UK foreign policy in sending arms to Saudi Arabia while providing aid on the ground via the Department for International Development.
Dfid admitted that it had not been consulted over arm sales.
Patrick Grady, MP for Glasgow North and shadow SNP spokesperson on International Development, said: “We continue to hear horror stories from the conflict in Yemen, yet the UK Government remains unmoved.”
“The government has not been able to explain why the use of UK-built planes, with pilots trained by UK instructors, dropping bombs made in the UK and co-ordinated by the Saudis in the presence of UK military advisers, does not add up to UK complicity in this conflict and potentially, therefore, in the war crimes allegedly being perpetrated.”
“The government in Belgium has moved to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia in light of the concerning allegations being made about the conflict in Yemen, so it must be possible for the UK Government to do so as well.”
“The SNP at Westminster will continue to press the UK Government to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and to launch a full investigation into allegations of war crimes in Yemen.”
In response, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: “The UK Government takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world.”
“All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis, and a licence will not be issued, for any country, if we assess there is a clear risk that it might be used in the commission of a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law.”
“The government is satisfied that extant licences for Saudi Arabia are compliant with the UK’s export licensing criteria.”
The FCO added: “Aggression by Houthi and forces loyal to former President Saleh drove out the legitimate Yemeni government. The UK supports the Saudi-led Coalition military intervention, which came at the request of the legitimate President Hadi, and is satisfied that extant licences for Saudi Arabia are compliant with the UK’s export licensing criteria.”
“Our priority is to help support the conditions for a return of that legitimate government to Yemen through a political process. Our humanitarian support is provided on the basis of need, irrespective of the cause.”
“We are providing substantial humanitarian assistance to the Yemeni people, and we have helped more than 1.3 million Yemenis so far. We provided humanitarian assistance prior to the conflict and have more than doubled our humanitarian assistance during the conflict as needs have grown.”
Cover image credit: Ibrahem Qasim | CC | http://bit.ly/24qNx9Q