Yemen's children seek work at the cemetery



A Yemeni boy fixes a portrait of a deceased person in a cemetery in Sanaa on March 25th. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Barefoot in a blue striped shirt, 13-year-old Ahmed al-Hamadi walks from school to a cemetery in Sanaa where he works to help his family survive.

Hauling gallons of water on his shoulders, he waters plants and sprinkles tombstones to rid them of the Sanaa dust for a modest payment from the families of the deceased.

"We usually wait for funeral processions to work," Ahmed said. "If no one has died, we just hang around the graves and play around here."

Ahmed is among millions of children struggling to stay in school in Yemen, where war, poverty and disease have brought the Arab world's poorest country to its knees.


Yemeni children water plants and clean tombstones in a Sanaa cemetery on March 25th. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]


A Yemeni boy waters plants and cleans tombstones in a Sanaa cemetery on March 25th. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

The Yemen war, which entered its fifth year last week, pits the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi against the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) and has triggered what the UN calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Children most at risk

Yemen has the highest level of child labour in the Arab world, both as a percentage and in sheer numbers, according to the International Labour Organisation.

And in the chaos of war, children are the most at risk, with girls facing forced marriage and boys recruited as fighters.

UNICEF called Yemen a "living hell for children" in 2018, with 80% of minors in need of aid.

The agency estimates that two million Yemeni children, out of an eligible seven million, are currently out of school.

Alongside the violence, Yemen's already-fragile economy has contracted by over 50% since the escalation of conflict in 2015, according to the World Bank.

The currency has plummeted, and with it purchasing power.

Yemen's private sector is all but dead, and the government-run Central Bank has struggled to pay civil servants' salaries, despite over $2 billion of cash injections by Saudi Arabia.

Many families have had no choice but to rely on their children for income -- sometimes as little as a few dollars a month.

Atiqa Mohammed runs a little grocery store and more often than not her shelves are empty. She had to turn a group of children away one March afternoon, with neither bread nor milk to sell them.

"The war has devoured everything," she said. "I do not want much. Bread and tea would be enough, as long as it is an honest living."

'Crowded with visitors'

Three-quarters of Yemen's population of 29 million are in need of humanitarian aid, with upwards of 10 million on the brink of mass starvation, according to the UN.

In some areas, teachers have not been paid since 2016. UNICEF stepped in this month, disbursing the equivalent of $50 per month to some 100,000 educators.

Ahmed is one of the luckier ones. His school is still open. But when his father could not find work, it was up to him to help his family. He first tried street peddling before turning to the cemetery as a last resort.

Fifteen-year-old Yasser al-Arbahi also found himself working at the cemetery after his father had a stroke. He attends class until noon, then heads to the cemetery after lunch.

"If there is a grave that needs to be cleaned, I will spray it down," he said. "Then on Fridays, I make sure I have water to sell to the families who come to visit the graves."

Some 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen over the past four years, according to the World Health Organisation, although rights groups say the toll could be five times higher.

By the tombstones in Sanaa, Yasser pays particular attention to cacti and flowers planted on the graves, taking the time to water them all.

He appeared thankful for the work: "Cemeteries are crowded with visitors."

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