By Mohammed Al Asaadi
SANA’A, Yemen, 21 March 2011 – For Yusuf Al-Nihari, 10, and his older brother, Abdul Mutaleb, walking to school every day past anti-government protester tents and security force checkpoints has become a real struggle.
“I am scared walking to school,” says Yusuf, who is taking a break from a lively game of football in the playground of the Moath Ibn Jabal School in Sana’a. During the interview, he seems mindful of the time. He wants to play as much as he can. Come tomorrow, he may not be able to.
“My brother, sisters and I were out of school for a week,” adds Abdul Mutaleb. “We were all scared.”
Of the 52 shot dead during a massive crack-down on protestors on March 18, at least two of the victims are known to have been children. This happened about 250 metres away from the boys’ home.
Since the anti-government demonstrations in Yemen began in early February, 19 children have reportedly been killed, including in the cities of Sana’a, Ibb, Aden, and Mukalla. This is an estimated 20 per cent of the total number of casualties, and is “absolutely alarming,” according to UNICEF Child Protection Specialist George Abu-Zulof.
Children in danger
With the recent escalation of violence, tensions and clashes are expected to increase across the country. Unfortunately, it is not the first time Yemeni children and other civilians have faced serious threats to their safety, health, and well-being. The country has long suffered from armed conflict and wars.
“Yemeni parents continue to take their children to demonstrations, exposing them to risk and increasing their vulnerability to fatal dangers,” says SEYAJ Organization for Childhood Protection Chairman Ahmed Al-Gorashi. He warns all sides in the political conflict against including children in demonstrations.
Bushra Al-Bukari, 11, and her sister, Manar, 10, live some 100 metres from an anti-government sit-in in Sana’a. They heard gunfire a week ago when security forces attempted to end the protest. “We were terrified. We can’t go to school or play outside,” they say. “We miss our class and our friends.”
Ms. Al-Bukari decided to keep her daughters at home, as far away from harm as she could. “I don’t allow my children to watch the news on TV,” she says, “but I can’t prevent them from hearing gunshots or smelling tear gas.”
Impact on education
Back at Moath Ibn Jabal School, the Al-Nihari brothers want the freedom to move around, study and play. “We don’t like to be locked in,” they say, before running off, back to their football game.
Jamila Al-Mujahid, their school principal, has noticed that the on-going tension and escalating violence has affected not only students’ attendance, but behaviour and performance as well.
“Children are becoming more aggressive and have a higher tendency to fight,” she says. “I found political slogans painted on some children’s arms. Kids are not used to seeing and experiencing such violence. What is going on now is a crime against childhood.”
Schools in other parts of the country have also been affected. In Aden, some protestors threatened to burn down schools if teachers and pupils refused to join the protests, while in Taiz, a ruling party local counsellor stormed several schools with armed men and threatened teachers who were on strike.
“Children are the first and most vulnerable victims of any emergency or civil unrest,” says UNICEF Representative in Yemen Geert Cappelaere. “We must make sure children are not caught up in the disputes of adults.”
A basic right
UNICEF is gravely concerned about the vulnerability of children in the light of the deteriorating security situation in Yemen. Physical safety and access to education are basic rights for every child.
But desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures. Ayman Al-Awadhi, a sports teacher at Modern Safir School which borders the sit-in area in Sana’a, believes that closing schools may be the safest option for children in the current situation, even though he says protesters “have not intimidated us.”
“Children should never be denied access to education,” he adds.