Horror of Yemeni war’s child victims

If Hisham Abdulaziz had left al-Mazraq refugee camp in Yemen a few minutes later, he would also have been incinerated in the airstrike, just like the bodies he later saw at the hospital.

“They were burned; it was a very horrible image,” said the doctor after labouring to treat the wounded, including women and children, who streamed into the nearest hospital. By the end of the day there were 29 bodies in the hospital morgue.

“One man came looking for his five children who were missing and he was able to identify two of their corpses, but he couldn’t find the others,” said Abdulaziz. “It was difficult to identify them.”

More than two dozen people in the camp were killed in Monday’s airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting Houthi rebels, believed to be backed by Iran.

The coalition battling the rebels is alarmed by the growing influence of Iran in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. But as the fighting intensifies, so does the humanitarian cost of the struggle, which is threatening to further push Yemen – already the poorest country in the Arab world –towards disaster.

“It is an inhumane situation; these are women and children who have nothing to do with war,” said Abdulaziz. “In fact, they had tried to flee the war.” The camp, which was established years ago to accommodate civilians fleeing previous rounds of fighting between government forces and the Houthis, had begun to empty before the latest outbreak of conflict.

But almost 1 000 families returned to seek refuge when the airstrikes began, according to Julien Harneis, who represents the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in Yemen.

Many families flocked to camp
During his visit on the morning of the strike, Abdulaziz said that many families had flocked to the al-Mazraq camp’s registration centre to resettle there. Missiles from the airstrike, which humanitarian workers said targeted the entrance of one of three camps in the complex, landed near to where they were queuing.

Many of the wounded and the bodies were evacuated to Haradh hospital in a town 45km from the camp, where Abdulaziz worked with a colleague to treat them. But he said many had to be evacuated because they needed urgent surgery and it was difficult to get medical supplies and staff to the area.

He said there were 29 bodies in the hospital morgue, and 34 people in critical condition. Initial estimates had counted 40 people dead. Images provided by a humanitarian worker from Haradh hospital showed gruesome scenes – charred bodies immolated by the blast, mangled corpses in plastic bags and wounded children being treated. When he visited the camp in the aftermath of the airstrike, he saw scattered limbs littering the area nearby.

“There are a lot of children among the dead and injured and some of them are still being treated in Haradh hospital,” he said. “I am a resident of Sana’a; we have airstrikes at the airport, and my home and children are near the airport. I have asked God to protect them and stayed in Haradh for these numerous, weak refugees, may God have mercy on them.” Aid workers say that hundreds of families have now fled to nearby valleys and hills in fear, sleeping in the open.

It is unclear why the camp was attacked. A humanitarian worker said an initial investigation indicated that the airstrike had attacked an armed convoy that was driving along the nearby road, and that one of the vehicles in the convoy had fled the scene into the camp, where it was bombed. His account cannot be verified.

Saudi Arabia’s military spokesperson told Reuters he could not confirm that a camp had been hit, but said jets might have returned fire on anti-aircraft weapons placed in civilian areas. Yemen’s foreign minister, Riyadh Yassin, blamed Houthis for the explosion.

Yemeni activists said that many military camps are located near residential areas, a deliberate choice by Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was president of Yemen until 2012. Some of the Houthi rebels have also installed anti-aircraft weapons on top of residential buildings or near residential areas.

Spraying shrapnel
“You can’t talk about separation between military and civilian targets,” said one Sana’a-based activist. He cited the bombing of a weapons depot on Monday night in Faj Attan, Sana’a, near a residential district, where the explosions from the bombing carried on for a long time after the airstrike, spraying shrapnel at nearby homes.

The activist said civilian casualties in the city have been relatively limited, but that could change as the Saudi-led coalition turns its sights on moving targets. “This will open the door for military mistakes,” he said.

Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies say they cannot provide urgently needed medical supplies and treatment to the wounded, and warn of a humanitarian disaster. Unicef’s Yemen representative said the organisation had confirmed that at least 62 children had been killed and 30 maimed in four days of fighting, describing the situation as “appalling”.

“We worked for decades, and me personally for years, in Yemen to try to improve the situation,” said Harneis. “We brought malnutrition down, we’ve increased vaccination rates, we’ve brought girls to school. We’ve been working for years to do this and all of what’s going on now is just going to roll that back, and Yemeni children are paying a huge price for this,” he said.

All parties to the conflict must ensure that civilians are not targeted, that schools and hospitals are not used or attacked, and that the recruitment of children to fight comes to an end, Harneis said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said obstacles to the provision of medical supplies must be removed, and expressed concern about the high number of civilian casualties. – © Guardian News and Media 2015

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