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Yemen’s ongoing civil war creates a life of loss for children

As the civil war in Yemen enters its sixth year, tens of thousands have died in the fighting, while disease and hunger have killed thousands more. The many children who have lost or been abandoned by parents have suffered the most, both physically and emotionally. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports on the devastating effects of the war from inside the country’s oldest orphanage.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    The civil war in Yemen will soon enter its sixth year. Tens of thousands have been killed amid fighting between Iran-aligned Houthi rebels and Yemen's government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition that is supported by the United States.

    Disease and an acute hunger crisis have killed untold thousands more. And, for children in Yemen, the war hits especially hard. Their losses can be profound, none more so than the deaths of or abandonment by their own parents.

    From the rebel-held capital of Sanaa, special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    As the winter sun rises over Yemen's ancient capital, Sanaa, boys at this orphanage play soccer while they wait for their breakfast. When it comes, it's a humble meal, just lentils and bread. But it's hot, and they are happy to have it.

    The littlest boys eat separately, one of them sent to collect the bread each morning. The children break the bread together before it gets cooked on an outside stove with milk. It's not much, but, in this city, many children have much less.

    Dar Ri'ayat al-Aytam is the oldest orphanage in Yemen. It opened its doors to boys in 1925, and moved from Sanaa's ancient Old City to this spot in the 70s. Now around 400 boys call it home, some sent here by extended family, others abandoned by their destitute parents or taken in from the streets.

    Little Mohsin Douma's father was killed in Yemen's current, brutal civil war. He is 12 years old and arrived with two older brothers.

  • Mohsin Douma:

    My grandpa and uncle brought us here to study. They told us that we have to study here until we finish high school.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Like most of the children here, he knows what he wants to be when he grows up.

  • Mohsin Douma:

    A doctor.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Mohsin is lucky. He still gets to go home to his mom after term ends. In the Arab world, children are often considered orphans when their father dies. In Yemen, impoverished by the war, single mothers can rarely cope. Some are forced to remarry and start new families.

    But Mohsin also has Ahmed Ali, his best friend and neighbor from his home village. Ahmed is 11 years old and lost his father also fighting in this war.

  • Ahmed Ali:

    It has been four months since I came here, so I'm a new student. I was in the village, and he was in a military camp.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    When we asked what happened to his father, he simply says the Arabic word for airplane. Ahmed's father was a soldier killed in an airstrike. Like many of the boys who have mothers still alive, they live for the promise of visits back home.

  • Ahmed Ali:

    We are going to have exams soon, and then I can go back and see her.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    But Ahmed hasn't been spared the experience of war. He, like so many of the children here, has seen too much already.

  • Ahmed Ali:

    Fighter jets used to bomb, and farms were exploding. And next to our house, there was bombing. Things were exploding and burning.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The other boys here tell me of the times the airstrikes hit near the orphanage, and they were terrified.

    "When the airstrikes come, we pray and ask God to save us," one of them tells me.

    At times, the war outside the orphanage walls has come dangerously close.

  • Ahmed Abdulmalek Al Khazan:

    Before the war, there were many more boys here, but because our location is between two military areas that were targeted extensively, some students got scared and left for their villages.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Yet, as the war grinds on, need surpasses fear here, and boys have steadily shown up at the gates.

  • Ahmed Abdulmalek Al Khazan:

    The majority have come here because their father died. And, in some cases, it's because divorce happens and a mother has remarried. But it's also because of poverty.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Of all the different groups of people in Yemen, it is children who are by far the worst affected by this war.

    In the chaos and cruelty of Yemen's war, boys are being recruited to fight in it. The Houthi rebels have child soldiers as young as 11 in their ranks, according to the United Nations. Airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition have hit children, too, like the 40 killed last August when a coalition bomb was dropped on a bus full of little boys.

    And then there is the menace of starvation. Millions of Yemenis are on the brink of famine, as the country's fragile economy has collapsed in this war; 85,000 children have already died of malnutrition and preventable diseases, according to the charity Save the Children.

    At least here, the boys can have a meal and safe place to sleep for the night. The promise of an education gives them a fighting chance at life when they have to leave here.

    And the boys love their studies. But they have also lost so much, and it's still an ordeal for the newest arrivals.

  • Abdullah Al Nuzaily:

    When the students first arrive at the orphanage, they feel shy and don't tend to speak, but, after a while, they get used to the other boys. They are sad at first, grieving, and they isolate themselves, sitting alone. But they then get used to it and make friends.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Friends like Mohsin and Ahmed Ali. They showed me their beds in the dorm room, right next to one another. Bed time is 9:00 p.m., they tell me.

    Sometimes, one of the other boys sings them to sleep. It's some comfort for these boys, who are just a handful out of the millions who need help surviving this war.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Sanaa, Yemen.

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