Yemen: The world’s forgotten war, where children are forgotten the most

by Vivien Maidaborn / 09 November, 2018

Millions of children are at risk of starvation in Yemen. Photo / UNICEF

Last week seven-year-old Amal Hussain died. She had been receiving urgent attention for severe malnutrition at a UNICEF-supported clinic, but despite the best efforts of doctors and staff, her tiny body could no longer cope.

The world knows Amal’s name because a photo taken for the New York Times of her emaciated body had shocked an otherwise unknowing public into realising what is happening in Yemen.

To know we were so close to saving her, but couldn’t, is devastating. To know she is one of millions of children at risk, is horrifying.

To many, mention of the name Yemen may provoke some faraway flicker of recognition. A name overheard on the news, perhaps. A distant dot on a map.

Less well known is the terrible succession of crises that mean Yemen is now being spoken of as one of the most challenging humanitarian crises the world has seen.

A father holds his emaciated baby. Photo / UNICEF

Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East - one of the poorest countries in the world - is mired in a bitter conflict that involves some of the world’s wealthiest.

For four years this impoverished country at the bottom of the Arabian peninsula has suffered through conflict, hunger, drought and economic collapse.

Infrastructure has been destroyed. Doctors and teachers work without pay. Families don’t know where their next meal will come from. Children drink from dirty water sources - when they can find water at all.

In just the last few days, intense fighting in the port city of Hudaydah is now dangerously close to Al Thawra hospital where medical staff and patients have confirmed hearing heavy bombing and gunfire.

Fighting has also reportedly intensified around Hudaydah’s port – through which up to 80 per cent of Yemen’s humanitarian supplies, fuel and commercial goods are delivered. The toll in lives could be catastrophic if the port is damaged, destroyed or blocked.

Vital supplies are delivered to those in need from the port at Hudaydah, where fighting has intensified recently. Photo / UNICEF

Yemen is on its knees, facing the threat of devastating famine, and with an entire generation of children at risk.

More than 22 million people are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, including 11 million children. And still, the bombs rain down. This is a man-made tragedy, and everyone who is fighting in Yemen is responsible.

As with so many conflicts, it is incredibly complicated. But when things get complicated, our responsibilities only grow.

To deliver aid and supplies is a constant and delicate challenge and is only possible because of the humanitarian principles - humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.

That neutrality allows us to speak to all parties in order to achieve our sole goal - to reach vulnerable children.

Our expertise is in providing water, sanitation, education, vaccinations, and helping children recover from trauma through many long and terrible years of experience implementing those things in terrible situations.

A malnourished child waits with her mother to be seen by medical staff. Photo / UNICEF

And we have our voice.

With more than seven decades of acting as the world’s leading voice for children in emergencies, UNICEF has called, loudly, and regularly, for all parties involved to cease the endless attacks that are hurting children. But still, children continue to die. Children always die -  a fact that should never cease to outrage, shame and infuriate the international community.

In June the world was horrified when 40 children were killed after their bus was hit by a bomb as they returned from a picnic. Their bloodied UNICEF backpacks provided a terrible image of the tiny victims caught up in this war.

And then the world moved on. Since then, more bombs have fallen. More people have gone hungry. More children have lost their lives.

But in any conflict, many more children die from disease than bullets, and in Yemen, disease has been the scourge of millions.


Already Yemen has experienced one of the worst documented cholera epidemics the world has seen. And according to the World Health Organisation it is now escalating again with roughly 10,000 cases being reported each week.

Already, four million children suffering the most extreme form of malnutrition - known as severe acute malnutrition. A child suffering from severe acute malnutrition is nine times more likely to die from disease than a child who is not. A simple illness could easily prove fatal.

Whether it is paying doctors so they can tend to the ill, providing safe water for families, or working around the clock to treat children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, there is no end to the assistance organisations such as UNICEF need to provide.

As infrastructure was destroyed, the need grew.

As food was depleted, the need grew.

As the bombs rained down, the need grew.

It is always children who are most vulnerable - whether from violence, hunger, the loss of innocence, or disease.

The numbers are, as ever, difficult to comprehend. But each of those 11 million is a child, battling to survive, crying out with hunger. Each of those numbers is a desperate parent, watching as their baby wastes away with no way of helping them.

And each of those numbers is someone with a story, like Amal Hussein, who deserves so much more than for it to be a heart-breaking obituary.



Vivien Maidaborn is UNICEF NZ's Executive Director

To show your support UNICEF’s work for the children of Yemen, please donate here.



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