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MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA feature story for Yemen

© UNICEF Yemen/2010/Gudmarsson

Now in a camp in Hajjah Governorate, seven-year-old Elham (right) is severely traumatized. She was trapped beneath the rubble of her home during artillery shelling in a neighbouring governorate. Ongoing conflict has traumatized many children.

Text and Photo: Sveinn Gudmarsson, Communication Officer, UNICEF Yemen

The simple phrase “there are five bars in the windows of the prison” does not sound particularly difficult to say in English. But trying to say it in Arabic is a different story. The children taking part in psychosocial support activities in a large UNICEF-supported tent at a displacement camp in Al-Mazraq, in Yemen’s northern Hajjah governorate, line up to shout out the tongue-twister and the whole tent roars with laughter as the exercise begins.

There are three camps in Hajjah that host men, women and children from Sa’ada, a neighbouring governorate that has been affected by conflict for the past six years. Populations were displaced most recently when fighting broke out in August 2009 between the Government of Yemen and tribes loyal to the Al-Houthi Shiite group. Since the beginning of the conflict, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 350,000 people have been internally displaced across the governorates of Al Jawf, Amran, Hajjah, Sa’ada and Sana’a, many of them more than once.

Due to lack of security and reconstruction, few of the internally displaced people have returned home, despite a ceasefire agreement reached in February 2010. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people, 70 per cent of them children and women, are still living in camps and scattered settlements; around 10,000 of them live in Al-Mazraq Camp 1.

With scars on their souls

The horrors of war leave survivors with physical scars and psychological wounds that often run even deeper, especially where children are concerned. One of every 10 children attending the psychosocial support activities in Al-Mazraq Camp 1 are so traumatized that they need psychiatric treatment.

And they are not alone. A comprehensive inter-agency assessment of children’s well-being in the conflict-affected northern governorates, released in August 2010, revealed that 21 per cent of the children interviewed saw someone being injured or wounded and 7 per cent witnessed someone being killed.1 According to the report, one child of every three felt unsafe, sad or frustrated, angry or afraid, or experienced a diminished sense of hope.

Elham, a 7-year-old girl from Sa’ada, is one of these children. She was trapped under rubble when her home collapsed during artillery shelling, and has been lost in her own private world since her rescue. Elham does not seem to comprehend her whereabouts; she neither talks nor responds to what is said to her, and she has to be taken by the hand at all times so she does not run away and get lost. Although Elham laughs and smiles during the session in the tent, her father is heartbroken.

“She used to be just a normal little girl,” he said, “but after the trauma, she is a completely different person. She is not always this happy; sometimes she is indeed very difficult to handle.”

Elham is, fortunately, an extreme case in the tent at Al-Mazraq Camp 1: Most of the children joining in the activities attend for recreational reasons.

More than 90,000 children reached

Since the Sa’ada emergency began in August 2009, UNICEF-trained child protection teams, selected from the ranks of the internally displaced people, have reached more than 90,000 displaced children in child-friendly spaces in camps and settlements. The teams provide much-needed recreation, including traditional games and stories, and also identify vulnerable children and refer them to appropriate services. In addition, they hold sessions for the affected population to raise awareness of such issues as child labour, mine risk, the importance of education for children, violence against children, protection of children in emergencies and healthy hygiene.

Hashina, a psychotherapist and the supervisor of the psychosocial support activities in the camp, said that community outreach and awareness have brought unexpected benefits. “Through these activities we can also address several protection issues since so many community members attend,” she explained. “We have been able to deal with many cases of domestic violence and abuse and provide counselling.”

Signs of improvement

The wounds wrought by war take a long time to heal, if they can be healed at all. Yet some children are showing signs of improvement. “When we started these services,” said Hashina, “most of the children were miserable and kept to themselves. I even had to go to their tents and ask the families to send them here. Now they come on their own initiative and play happily with each other.”

Mariam and Zarah, two cheerful 7-year-old girls who frequent the child-friendly space in Al-Mazraq Camp 1, prove this point. “We love to draw pictures, especially flowers,” they both said, almost in unison.

Laughter from tongue-twisters, playing, singing and drawing flowers may not seem like comprehensive therapy, but these UNICEF-supported activities in child-friendly learning spaces provide normalcy to the children – and can give healing balm to their hidden scars from the war. And that aspect of emergency recovery is priceless.

1  Yemen Child Protection Sub-Cluster, Interagency Comprehensive Child Protection Assessment in Conflict-Affected Governorates in North Yemen, Sana’a, Yemen, August 2010, p. 5.