(United Nations) An airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition that devastated a busy marketplace in northern Yemen’s rebel-held Hajja province sparked a global outcry in March 2016, when the attack’s death toll emerged – more than 100 civilians were killed, among them – 23 boys.
At the time, Saudi officials declared a legitimate strike on a Houthi rebel base. Human Rights Watch, a pressure group, disagreed and said the bombing of Khamees market in the Mastaba district should be investigated as a war crime.
It was not the only time that young Yemenis got caught up in the carnage. A new United Nations report has verified 11,779 grave violations against children between April 2013, during Yemen’s spiralling political crisis, and the end of last year.
“Children did not start the war in Yemen, but they are paying the highest price,” says the report of UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres. The recruitment and use of children, the killing and maiming of children, attacks on hospitals and schools and the denial of humanitarian access for children have been constant features.
The 16-page report comes at a crucial time. At the end of July, Guterres will publish his annual “list of shame” of armed groups that commit atrocities against youngsters – a list that has in the past named and discredited the Saudi-led coalition.
In its new report, the UN blames all parties. Too many airstrikes by Saudi and UAE jets have ended the lives of youngsters early. Too often, Houthi rebels have armed children as young as ten with assault rifles and sent them to the front lines.
The document “paints a devastating picture of the violations affecting boys and girls over the past five years,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at the world body’s premises in New York.
“With over 7,500 cases, the most prevalent violation documented by the UN was the killing and maiming of children. The report also documents high levels of recruitment and use of child soldiers.”
The UN confirmed 3,034 cases of children being recruited into armed forces, mostly the Houthi rebel group, which took the Yemeni capital Sanaa in 2014 and say they are waging a revolution against graft.
The UN also verified that 2,776 children have been killed by warfare. Almost half of these deaths were attributed to airstrikes and aerial attacks — mostly from the coalition, which joined the war in 2015 to back the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
The numbers are startling, but are likely an under-count, the report says. Collecting data on deaths from airstrikes is hampered by poor access around Yemen; and groups like the Houthis deter members from talking about child soldiers.
Virginia Gamba, the UN’s envoy on children and armed conflict, said military chiefs had shown blatant disregard for the welfare of children in prosecuting a war that has turned Yemen into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
“Despite some positive measures adopted by parties to protect boys and girls from grave violations, the suffering of children in Yemen has worsened during the reporting period, becoming simply appalling,” said Gamba.
The Yemen conflict has pushed what was already one of the Arab World’s poorest nations to the brink of famine and killed tens of thousands of people since March 2015, according to the World Health Organization.
Years of political upheaval and fighting have forced some 3.3 million people to flee their homes and left 24.1 million others — more than two-thirds of the population — in need of medicine, food and other aid.
The Saudi-Emirati alliance intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try and restore the government that was overthrown by the Houthis. It is largely seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which publicly backs the rebels.
Hopes of a diplomatic breakthrough were raised by the inking of a truce in Sweden late last year, but in implementing the deal, Hodeidah, a port city, has ground to a halt and conflict continues elsewhere.
“The recent developments in the peace process must lead to tangible progress on the ground. The civilian population, especially children, is kept hostage of a conflict they didn’t choose to be in,” said Gamba.