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Yemen one year on - I can't sleep for fear that this night might be our last

by Fatima Al Ajel, Save the Children in Yemen | Save the Children - International
Tuesday, 29 March 2016 11:31 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The bombing usually comes around midnight. It’s like a nightmare but we are always wide awake. Often I can’t sleep for fear that this night might be our last. Some families went to sleep and never woke up again, killed in their beds.

I see the fear in the faces of my young nieces and nephews. A year ago they wanted to travel in planes and see the world, but now planes just mean death. They hear the sound of a plane and they think that someone is about to die. It’s even harder for their parents – I see my sister suffering because she worries about her children more than she worries about herself, but she can’t protect them from the airstrikes. No mother can.

After one year of war in Yemen we still can’t get used to the bombing, or the shortages. We barely have anything. 10 million children in Yemen are now without clean water or enough food. We’ve been in the dark for the past year – even hospitals don’t have electricity.

Doctors and nurses at one hospital had to go knocking on the doors of nearby homes to beg for any spare fuel. The local community gave whatever it could, but it is barely enough. A few weeks ago a newborn baby died when the hospital’s power shut down completely, switching off the incubators and ventilators.

The de-facto blockade means that last month only 15% of the fuel Yemen needs was allowed into the country, and medicine is also scarce. My friend is a nurse in a public hospital – she often calls in tears because a child has died in front of her as they don’t have the medicine to treat them. When the bombing gets really bad they take patients down to the basement and the staff spend days or even weeks sleeping at the hospital.

I’ve worked with Save the Children for seven years, often providing food and shelter to people who had to flee their homes. But this year was the first time it happened to me too. Our neighbourhood was attacked so my whole family fled to a village an hour’s drive outside the city. Some relatives gave us shelter – my mother, my sister, her children, me, all of us in one small room with hardly any electricity, water or food. Then, after three weeks, even this small village was bombed. With nowhere else to go, we went back to the city.

There is nowhere safe. Hundreds of schools have been bombed and many others are now turned into shelters for displaced families. Half of children in Yemen are now out of school and parents often refuse to send their children to school for fear of bombing. One told me, “I prefer for my child to lose a year of school than to lose his life.”

This is not the same Yemen that I used to know, or the Yemen that I love. There was a rich culture of art, literature and music, but now people focus on staying alive. The Old City in Sana’a was like a museum – full of beautiful old buildings – but thousands of years of heritage and culture have been bombed.

We try to live life as normally as possible. Yemenis have always looked forward to wedding parties – they would go on all night and everyone from the community was invited. People still get married, even in these difficult times, but now we just invite a few close friends and everyone has to go home as soon as it’s dark. Even wedding parties have been bombed.

We limit the time we spend outside. I get up, I go to the office, I go home. Sometimes it’s too dangerous to even go to the office. It’s not safe outside – just last week more than 100 people were killed while shopping in a market – and it’s hard to have fun when you’re scared. People spend the evenings in the dark, disconnected from the world. Without electricity you can’t follow the news.

One year of living like this is more than enough. We need the parties to the conflict to end the war and stop targeting civilians. We need the international community to play a much greater role. Many of the bombs that fall on our houses, schools and hospitals are sold by international governments, who should instead be helping to find a solution. The people running and supporting this war are also parents. If they could just imagine their own children living in this situation, the war would surely end.

It’s hard to think far into the future. A few months ago I was chatting with a friend – we laughed, reminisced about old times, and talked about the future. He was so full of hope. The next day he was killed in an airstrike. How can we have hopes and dreams when life can be cut short so soon? My main hope now is just to live, and for my nieces and nephews to know a normal life again.

But I think of the doctors and teachers doing everything they can to keep hospitals and schools open in such difficult circumstances; I think of Yemeni journalists who are bravely trying to tell the stories of children’s rights; I think of my colleagues at Save the Children, who are providing food, water and healthcare to families across the country despite the dangers; and then I know that a better future is still possible.