By Mohammed Al-Asaadi
A girl’s experience illustrates the importance – and challenge – of protecting children in conflict, as an upsurge in violence in Yemen’s capital has brought increased risks for children.
SANA’A, Yemen, 28 January 2015 – Riham looks happy and hopeful this morning, in sharp contrast to how she felt a few days ago, when her city was engulfed by heavy firefighting. The 13-year-old witnessed a battle at close quarters when her school was caught in a crossfire between government forces and armed groups known as ‘popular committees’.
Although I heard the machine gun fire, I was not scared until a huge explosion rocked the entire school,” Riham says. “We were sitting in our classroom, waiting to write an exam. My classmates were crying, as none of us could complete our exams.”
“If I come to power, I will remove all those who try to destroy my country and terrify the children,” Riham tells a UNICEF team conducting a rapid assessment in the aftermath of the fighting in her neighbourhood.
Hundreds of students in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, were forced to evacuate classrooms soon after the clashes started. Riham’s school was hit by stray bullets, several landing on the rooftop. Luckily, no children were harmed in the crossfire.
On hearing gunshots, Riham and her friends acted with caution, and the teenager led by example and told all students to stay indoors and avoid any suspicious-looking objects.
Knowing the dangers
A few months ago, after a similar fighting in the city, Riham and many others like her received training on how to react when exposed to a dangerous situation. The training, conducted periodically by UNICEF and partners, aims to raise awareness among children, parents and community members on the risks associated with mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO).
UNICEF also provides psychosocial support to children in distress as a result of conflict.
One of the bigger risks to children and adults alike during such conflicts, as witnessed by Rahim and her friends, is unexploded ordnance (UXO) and explosive remnants of war (ERW). Such objects can accidentally detonate or explode, causing death or severe injuries.
Children are often the victims of UXO and ERW, as they are less likely to understand the dangers. UNICEF and its partners are reaching out to communities by making public service announcements on television and radio on mine risk education, and by distributing leaflets on measures to take if a suspicious object is found – such as immediately calling the hotline of the Yemen Executive Mine Action Centre (YEMAC) and also notifying the nearest police station.
A deadly month
This past December was a particularly deadly month for children in Yemen, with at least 83 children reportedly killed or maimed because of armed conflict. Moreover, many children have had their education disrupted after schools were occupied by armed forces or armed groups in September 2014, when warring groups first fought for control over Sana’a. It has been reported that more than 51 schools were directly or indirectly affected by armed conflict during the September violence.
UNICEF has repeated its appeal to all parties to the conflict to refrain from targeting civilian areas, especially schools, hospitals and residential areas. UNICEF has also called on all parties to the conflict to ensure that children are protected at all times, that no child is recruited or used by armed forces or armed groups, and that their rights are protected in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law.
A safe and secure environment
Although Riham and her colleagues didn’t finish their first term exams and won’t be back in class until the second week of February, when schools reopen after an extended break, the teenager hopes that the war will stop and she can go out and play with her friends, without fear of bullets or bombs.
“All efforts should be made to ensure that once schools are reopened, children return to safer classrooms,” says Julien Harneis, UNICEF Representative in Yemen. “We also urge the government to ensure that all school premises are cleaned and no UXO or explosive debris is left behind. A school is and should always remain a safe and secure learning environment, in which children can complete their studies without fear of any political or security implications.”