Jemen

The suffering children of Taiz

Sniper City.

The current nickname for the city of Taiz.

It is one of the most dangerous and tense cities in the catastrophic Yemeni civil war.

Taiz is split between forces loyal to the international recognized government, whom controls two-third of the city, and the Houthis who controls the rest.

But close to the frontline between the two combatting sides, civilian people have their homes. They live on the frontline and risks their lives every day in their own homes. Our Correspondent met people who paid a high price in the war, in a city where no one is safe from snipers, mines and artillery, not even the children.

From the 3.000 meters peak in the mountains surrounding Taiz it looks all so calm. But the wind, bird song and the prayer announcement from the mosques are interrupted every now and then by dull bangs. Explosions from artillery.

It often targets civilian residential areas.

Just before I arrived a football coach and his son was killed when a grenade hit a locker room.

This is the city where no one is safe.

The city where people live at the frontline and where playing children are targets. Hence its new nickname, Sniper City.

I heard about a neighborhood where everyone has been hit by the war -  struck by violence themselves, or lost a relative or a loved one.

I went there.

I met ten year old Sheima, she just arrived from school. Her walk is a little bit stiff. It’s her artificial leg, difficult to get used to.

– My name is Sheima, I am ten years old.

– It was during Ramadan. I was out playing. It was around ten o´clock. All of a sudden, there was an attack that hit me. I went unconscious, and when I woke up at the hospital the next morning I discovered that I lost one of my legs. They said that my leg went to heaven before me.

Sheimas father, Ali looks painful when he is talking about what happened.

– When I heard the sound of grenades I immediately understood something serious happened. I went out on the street where our children played and saw pools of blood. My daughter was lying on the ground and cried out in despair “daddy, daddy, help me!”.

For Sheima the memory is painful.

– I was desperate. When I woke up I wanted to move my leg, It felt like it was there, but there was no leg.

It was a grenade that struck where she and her friends were playing. Several children were injured.

In the area where Sheima lives, this is not unusual.

On just a short visit in the neighborhood I met lots of people who have been injured or lost loved ones.

And Sheimas father now fear for the worst, every time he has to leave the home for work or some errand.

– Every time I expect to come home and there is no family left.

Yemen sometimes is called the forgotten war, in that case, Taiz is the forgotten city.

Once Yemen’s capital of culture with the great universities and the highly educated people.

Now Taiz instead is known as the countries longest running battle field, the deadliest area in the war and the city struck by most air strikes. Here is no rest, no security, no safety. The tension is felt in the air.

At the front area when I meet Sheima, I felt how overwhelming it is.

People flocked around us, standing beside us, some sitting on their old motorcycles, listening to  Sheima and her fathers story. And then all of them wanted to tell their story. Their testimony.

Some take of their shirts, trouserlegs are rolled up, they all want to show their scars.

Hawazi is ten years old.

She was injured while buying potatoes. A bullet first hit the old lady selling the potatoes, it went through her soft parts and then hit Hawazi.

She still has fragments from the bullet left in her body, but it’s not the injury that worries Hawazi. It’s the experience. It is so difficult to sleep.

– Yes, I am afraid and I remember. As soon as I hear a shot, or explosions, I get frightened and run. We run to our homes, we are scared of the bullets.

Another little girl, she doesn’t give her name, pushes forward in the crowd. Her eye is disfigured. It´s milky and can no longer see. There is shrapnel in the eye, and in other parts of her head. She´s got difficulties to speak, and her mind works slower than it used to. But most of all, she’s frightened.

– Yes I´m scared. I get so afraid I cry. Often.

It´s worst in the night, she dreams about the war and about her mother. She is no longer with them. And the little girl was there when her mother was killed.

– I was next to her when it happened and every time I hear shooting I think about when my mother was killed.

Everyone here knows each other.

Everyone here have their traumas.

Nobody even notices that Sheima, the girl we first met, just took of her artificial leg. Now she is jumping on one leg down the street to reach her father.

She turns back towards us, but before she reaches us more children come forward and show their scars. A six year old who was shot in the leg, her nine year old brother who tried to help her but was shot in the stomach.

Sheima is beside us again. She says that she experiences the war every day, she hears the sounds and she fears for her life.

– I hear the grenades, the shooting or exploding mines. I get so scared and my heart beats, really fast.

We stay in the shadow. The sun try its hardest to burn a light skinned Nordic guy. Sheima is so tired of war, she wants it to end so she can become a lawyer. But it never ends, and she blames the Houthi militia.

– I’m so upset that the Houthis kill children. It’s the Houthis who target children, it’s the Houthis who is the problem. If it was not for the Houthis, we would be safe, she says.

The Houthi militia is accused for most of the abuses in Taiz.

According to the Yemeni human rights organization Mwatana, the Houthis committed large numbers of artillery attacks against civilian targets, they have planted mines all over the city, and often it is the children who become the victims. And they have targeted civilians.

Mwatana can’t confirm that the rebels intended to shot children but the inhabitants here at the front line say there is no doubt. If you get exposed to the rebels line of fire, you will get shot.

There is a clear line of lush trees and shrubs between the government controlled areas of Taiz and the part controlled by the Houthis. The vegetation has spread in the no man’s land, where no human longer can enter.

On each side of the front lives ordinary families.

I can’t help wondering how it is to live here. On the front, always exposed to danger.

We go as far as possible.

– So where are the Houthi’s?

– You can see that this hill is the Houthi hill.

They say the snipers is only a few meters, maybe hundred meters away. We have to stay low. Run.

– If we go to far we will be shot by the Houthi snipers, and then we die, Mohammed al Sharabi says. He lives here.

– We never go to the other side of our house - if we do, or if we go a little bit too far and expose ourselves, there is a big risk of beeing shot.

A little girl, Abir, moves carefree in the area. She smiles and jumps when she moves. It doesn´t look so, but she is terrified.

– We are so scared. We can’t go to the grocery store or hardly even get our water from the well. Sometimes when we are at home there are bullets entering the house. It happened several times she says, while pointing at bullet holes in the door.

I wonder why they still live here. But Mohammed tells me they have nowhere to go. To be an IDP is not an option he says. Many IDP:s are starving and have a much more difficult life.

I hear about a girl. She is five years old and has been injured by an artillery strike in the area just days ago. Now she is in the hospital with a severe skull injury. She had shrapnel in her brain and her skull bone was so broken, so the doctors had to make a new for her.

– She was just going to buy candy and walked through a narrow alley when the attack came, her mother Naila Ghassem says. She holds her daughter Rahma in her lap sitting on the hospital bed.

She got a call and found out that her daughter was injured. She feared for her life. She can´t hold back her tears when she tells.

– It was a chock. I was terrified. I thought she wouldn’t make it. I thought she would die.

– Now I’m afraid all the time. I worrying all the time. What life is this? How fair is it?

Life here in Taiz is a struggle.

All roads in and out except one is controlled by the Houthis, the city is more or less under siege.

Patients who live on the wrong side of the city are forced to take detours for hours and hours just for a treatment at the hospital. A journey that only would take a couple of minutes if it wasn’t for the front.

Next stop is a school.

It’s destroyed. The Houthis blew big holes in the construction when they left. The Houthi-militia used to control the building, before they were driven away.

17 year old Wazila Hamoud loves the school but says that the school just like everything else in Taiz reminds her of the war.

– In the past nobody had to worry. But now our parents are worrying all the time when we are in school. And we all have to worry about shooting and grenades.  In the past we could plan for a future but now we don’t even know if we will have any future.

– War destroyed us. It destroyed the country, the economy and the people. The war killed our brothers and parents, it´s only bad memories. We are always frightened. If any family member goes out we´re praying that they will survive cause we know they will face dangers.

– We need peace and safety. And every time I go to sleep I worry. We need safety.

But she’s not even safe at school.

Outside the window Rafiq Sabri works carefully, looking for mines. They have found several mines in the school yard.

– All Taiz is full of mines, everywhere. The Houthis left thousands of mines when they left. Now we are trying our best to neutralize them, Rafiq says.

– There are thousands of victims of mines, women, children, men and animals.

– It is our duty to clear the area from mines. It’s a way to help people and it is worth the risk.

Everywhere in Taiz people carry their traumas. The war is constantly present here in the longest and bloodiest battle in Yemen. The people are the targets, the victims and the involuntary pawns in a war, long and ugly, that nobody seems how to end.