War within a war: Yemeni children struggle for water in city under siege

Yemeni children clutch at empty water bottles tasked with stopping their families from dying of thirst, ITV News Global Security Editor Rohit Kachroo reports from Taiz

Young boys wearing football shirts make friends and share jokes while they wait.

A girl in a ballerina dress smiles as she counts the number of footsteps from one side of the pavement to the other.

But this is serious work. In the fight for survival in Taizz, no one is spared a role. It is often the youngest who are sent to complete the chilling task of collecting water, on behalf of their entire family to ensure that no one dies from thirst.

“We are dying, we are dying,” says Majid, a local man who is among the dozens of cross-fingered Taizzis hoping that today a delivery will arrive.

He has tried to escape the besieged city before but was refused by Houthi soldiers.

“They saw that I was from a government-controlled area, and they said ‘You are from ISIS’. It was their first word: ‘You are from ISIS!’”

Children clutch at empty water bottles tasked with stopping their families from dying of thirst. Credit: ITV News

Now, trapped in Taizz, he relies on these occasional deliveries from a truck carrying huge containers of water.

Like everyone else, he is clutching his empty bottle which bears his name. I ask him what the outside world can do to help the situation.

He pauses. “Stop the siege of Taizz. Stop the siege of Taizz.”

At the nearby hospital, the consequences of the crisis are clear. The faint weeps of children can be heard as the doors to the malnutrition ward open. But Aisha is silent.

She is eight years old and weighs only seven kilograms – too weak to scream and even to move.

The surgeon names some of the conditions she is now suffering from – a list so long he cannot recall them all. “Malnutrition, diarrhoea, heart failure”.

He rates her chances of survival at no more than 10%.

Starved by the siege, starved by the men behind it, Aisha weighs just seven kilograms and is eight years old. Credit: ITV News

At her bedside is her aunt, Karema Al-Mamari, not her parents, who judged the journey across the city to save their daughter to be too dangerous for her healthier siblings.

An amateur singer, Karema performed at wedding ceremonies to raise money to come to the clinic after struggling to find food and medicine where she lived. “We went by ourselves to get water from the well because we don’t have any in our village. We carried water with donkeys,” she says.

“But there is no one in the village who can speak up on behalf of all of us to say we don’t have water.”

It is the men behind the war in Yemen – and, specifically, the siege of Taizz – who have prevented water from flowing to those who need it.

We are here to report on the campaign by Houthis against commercial shipping in and around the Red Sea which has used an array of sophisticated ballistic missiles and so-called ‘kamikaze’ drones.

But as we meet the malnourished children of the city, it is obvious that there is a greater weapon in the Houthi arsenal which deserves our attention, aimed at Yemeni people rather than commercial ships.

The group has blocked water flowing into the government-controlled city, forcing some people to collect rainwater.

According to Human Rights Watch, both Houthi and Yemeni forces have violated the rights of Taizz residents to water.

It claims the Houthis have blocked water flowing into the city from the two basins under its control and have prevented some water trucks from accessing government-controlled areas.

HRW also says military forces affiliated with the Yemeni government took control of some wells and sold supplies to residents for profit.

We find a hillside to get a view across the city. From there, the frontline is visible - a dark, green bank close to the mountains which looks like it has been drawn with a giant marker pen from left to right across the landscape.

Beyond it, heading into the hills is the territory controlled by the Houthis, who are backed by Iran. On this side, the Yemeni government is in charge, which has the support of Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Taizz is a war within a war within a war. And we are looking at part of the most dangerous dividing line in world politics.

For the people of Taizz, the water scarcity has become a war within a war. One that threatens far more lives than rockets in the Red Sea. Credit: ITV News

Before we leave the city, we return to see Aisha. She had been lying on the first bed as you enter the ward.

But as we approach down a short corridor, her bed lies empty, apart from a simple cloth and her aunt’s simple mobile phone. It is an ominous moment, given the bleak prognosis shared by the doctor the previous day.

But when we move into the ward, Aisha is there, struggling to sit up straight on the scales, a task she was incapable of contemplating in the preceding days.

It is not a breakthrough, but she is responding to treatment better than expected. Her aunt hopes the doctors were being too pessimistic.

She asks her niece to look towards our camera. “Tell them your name is Aisha and you want to go home.”

Aisha has water, food, medicine, and hope. In Taizz, that is rare.

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