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Scarred by war, Yemen’s children carry burdens beyond their years

In Yemen, some of the most vulnerable victims are the 2 million children on the brink of starvation, or those who lost limbs during the fighting. In Aden, many children have been fit with prosthetic limbs, but with rudimentary materials and old technology, they are sometimes barely functional. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now we return to our series Inside Yemen.

    In our first two installments, we drew the outlines of this conflict and how the war has forced this already impoverished nation into collapse, with millions of civilians in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

    Tonight, we meet and hear from the youngest and smallest victims, who bear the weight and scars of war, all the while trying to remain who they are, children.

    Again in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    This is the scene all over the southern port city of Aden, scars that have not healed from a war that will not end. Even amid the relative peace of Aden today, neighborhoods sit frozen in wartime.

    "We had my room just over there," 18-year-old Moawad tells me. His neighborhood was ground zero in a battle between Yemen's government and Houthi rebels back in 2015. His home is still a pile of rubble, but, luckily, he and his family were not home when the missile hit.

    But Imad wasn't so lucky. He was just 5 years old when his home was hit. He lost both his legs, but not his spirit. Now 8 years old, he's one of many children being fitted with prosthetic limbs here at the Prosthesis and Physical Therapy Center in Aden.

    But he prefers to bound around on his hands.

    "I'm strong," he tells me, "and first in my class."

    Then he sings me to me, his version of a Saudi pop song playing on the radio.

    SAMAH MOHAMMED, Prosthesis and Physical Therapy Center: When I saw them playing and smiling, they are missing limb, but still smiling, really, they giving me support. I'm learning from them.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Samah Mohammed is his prosthetics and orthotics technician. She and her team build prosthetics here in-house. But without access to new technology, their materials are rudimentary, old and heavy.

    So, Samah says some of the prosthetics are barely functional, primarily cosmetic.

    These are Imad's prosthetics.

  • SAMAH MOHAMMED:

    Yes.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    They're very heavy. They weigh about 10 pounds, which is a lot for an 8-year-old kid to have to carry around, and much less to learn how to walk with.

    I understand why he doesn't want to wear them.

  • SAMAH MOHAMMED:

    Yes.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Are the new prosthetics, are they lighter than this?

  • SAMAH MOHAMMED:

    Yes.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    And for a child like Imad, whose amputation left so little of his thigh, the prosthetic has to be locked at the knee, which means he can't bend it at will. Walking is cumbersome and painful. He's had this pair of prosthetics for two years, and he doesn't even take them home.

    He's exhausted after only a few moments.

    "These aren't my legs," he says. "They're too heavy."

    For his mother, it's almost too much to bear.

  • WOMAN (through translator):

    No mother in the world wants to see her son in this condition. No mother hopes this for her son. But this is my fate, and I say thanks to God.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    In neighborhood after neighborhood, we saw the most vulnerable victims of Yemen's civil war. Two million children in Yemen are suffering from severe acute malnutrition, which means they are on the brink of starvation.

    And for those not fighting for their lives, the bleakness of everyday life in Yemen becomes their biggest obstacle. Out of the seven million school-aged children in Yemen, four million are in need of some assistance.

    JAMIE GRAVES, Save the Children: Of that four million, two million are completely out of school.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    That's almost a quarter of school-age children here in Yemen.

  • JAMIE GRAVES:

    Unfortunately, yes.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Jamie Graves is the field manager for Southern Yemen's branch of Save the Children, which supports temporary schools.

  • JAMIE GRAVES:

    Fifty-six schools have been destroyed in the country, and another several hundred have been damaged. Teachers are not getting paid by the government because the government is using its resources for its war effort, and there's a low tax base to begin with.

    So you really have very little infrastructure, services or human capital, as in teachers delivering education.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    This is the rubble of an elementary school. It was bombed in 2015. It's been three years, and no one's rebuilt it. Now the kids go to school in these tents. The principal says they're choking from the sand and the heat is unbearable. But he says enrollment never changed.

    Against all odds, they still show up.

    What do you want to be when you grow up?

    "I want to be a doctor," this fourth grader in a girls classroom tells me.

    "No, I want to be a teacher," another one chimes in.

    Little Khafitha wanted to practice her English. She had learned how to say "I love you" from television and asked me my name.

    Marcia.

  • KHAFITHA, Student:

    I love you, Marcia.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    I love you, Khafitha.

  • KHAFITHA:

    I love you, Marcia.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    When I asked the girls about their classes, they said, this isn't a real school. Sometimes, the wind knocks over the tent.

    And as we left, they had but one message for us.

    "We want the school. We want the school," they chanted. One little girl said, "Maybe when you visit us next year, we will have a real school again."

    But for the two million who aren't in school at all, options are even more limited. Many are forced into early marriage, often for economic reasons.

    Gamaa is 14 years old. She quit school last year after her father died and her mother couldn't support her. And two months ago, she married 16-year-old Ababdulrahman. At first, she would barely speak. Then we asked the men to leave the room, so that we could a little bit talk more intimately.

    GAMAA ALIA AHMED, 14 Years Old (through translator): I loved everything about school, writing, reading, seeing my friends. But many days, I would go to school without food, and I would see everyone eating. Teachers asked for money that I didn't have. So I had to drop out.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Did you feel like, if you got married, you could help your family?

    GAMAA ALIA AHMED (through translator): Yes, I thought that. I thought that, if I left, maybe it will help. But then I discovered that my husband doesn't have a job.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    A cruel irony. Gamaa says, that while her new husband is kind to her, his family is just as poor as hers.

    Do you wish maybe you hadn't gotten married?

    GAMAA ALIA AHMED (through translator): Yes. Sometimes, when I feel down, I think of that. It's even worse for them now. My mom goes to work begging. My siblings stay hungry until she comes at night. One day, she brings food. The other day, she doesn't.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Do you wish you could be back in school?

    GAMAA ALIA AHMED (through translator): Yes, but he won't let me. I know my husband.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    But here, on the other side of town, it's a very different reality. These five childhood friends all graduated from university with engineering degrees. Now they want to bring their country back from the brink one hand at a time.

    Along with two other friends, Mohammed, Malek, Mohammed, and Shraf formed Enabling Aden. They make prosthetic hands using a 3-D printer.

    So, this is it.

    Mohammed ordered the printer from China, and waited a month for it to arrive. They have gone through six different prototypes, running the printer day and night at his family's home. It's an arduous process in a country with failing infrastructure.

  • MOHAMMED BAOBAID, Enabling Aden:

    Sometimes, the electricity goes off while printing, but, thankfully, the house, we switch off everything except the printer, so let it finish.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    So the whole family is definitely sacrificing.

  • MOHAMMED BAOBAID:

    Sacrificing and suffering with me, yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

    MOHAMMED BAOBAID, Even they are scared when, oh, the electricity is off, so let's see if the printer is running or not. It's scary moment.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    So far, they have only mastered hands, but they say they have big plans, and they owe it all to an American entrepreneur called Jon Schull. He co-founded Enabling the Future, which shares prosthetic designs openly for those in need.

  • MALEK YESLAM, Enabling Aden:

    It's not actually us who give the hands to the amputees in Yemen. Who gives the hands is the guys who made this an open source. If it wasn't an open source, it wouldn't never reach Aden, and maybe any other country, a Third World country.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    At this stage, only six people have received their new prosthetic hands, and Ali is one of them. He's just 15 years old, but he lost his hand last year fighting on the front line, like so many boys his age on both sides of the conflict. He says he chose to do this to avenge Houthi invaders.

    ALI BASHADI, Prosthetic Recipient (through translator): Two of my friends died, and the other had his leg broken. They died when the missile fall near them.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    So, you lost your hand and you lost your friends?

  • ALI BASHADI:

    Yes.

  • (through translator):

    I still feel sad about them until today.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Does this help a little bit?

  • ALI BASHADI:

    Yes. Yes.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    Ali says he wants someday to be a doctor or a pilot, and dreams of travel. And the young men who gave him his new hand say it's their calling to give back to those who suffer during the war, and to show the world what Yemenis can do.

  • SHRAF BIN BREAK, Enabling Aden:

    We hope that everyone sees that whenever technology is new, something can happen here in Yemen. You can bring it. It's not that we are lower than the whole world. No, we can do anything.

  • MARCIA BIGGS:

    But back at the prosthesis center, Imad heads home with his mom and sister, leaving his heavy prosthetics behind.

    And until those young engineers can produce better ones, his life is confined to a wheelchair, waiting and hoping for a better life.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Marcia Biggs in Aden, Yemen.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Amazing story.

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