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Millions of Children in Yemen Are Trapped in a War They Cannot Escape

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In this last week, I was in two places in Yemen that exemplify the unnecessary suffering of this uncivil war. On Monday, in a centre for the rehabilitation of the injured, in the capital Sanaa, I met wounded children. Brave girls and boys struggling to master their broken bodies and patched up limbs. Three days later in Taiz, a city under siege since May, I was in a battle scarred hospital, only a quarter of which was still intact. Gaunt doctors and nurses comforted mothers giving birth in wards without electricity or drugs. Of twenty two health facilities in the city only four are open, and these are struggling to provide even the most basic treatment.

These children are among the more than 1,108 injured in the last year, but at least they are alive: Over 747 more have died, in airstrikes, from bombs, bullets and the explosive remnants of a war they did not chose to be a part of.

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Two boys hold shrapnel from exploded artillery shells Unicef/2015/Yemen/Hamoud

But far more risk dying from disease, than from bullets. The destruction of health services, the implosion of the economy, spiraling food and fuel costs and the lack of clean water means that children are at risk from what would normally have been easily preventable and relatively harmless diseases. 2.5 million children risk suffering from diarrhoea and another 2.6 million children could well miss vaccination against measles. 1.3 million children are at risk of becoming acutely malnourished, of whom 320,000 will suffer from severe acute malnutrition over the next year if the situation does not improve drastically. Unicef estimates that 10,000 more children, under the age of five, will die than if there had not been this war.

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A child in vaccinated for polio in the capital, Sana'a Unicef/2015/Yemen/Yasin

The health system is on the brink of collapse, but somehow in most of the country it just about hangs together thanks to the bravery of its staff, the determined work of aid organisations and the support of donors. Crucially the warring parties have, so far, tacitly agreed not to drag the social services into their struggle. Government health workers, at great personal risk, work across the battle lines to vaccinate children and cure them of malnutrition. Where it works, where funds from donors like the UK provide therapeutic food, fuel to run generators to keep lifesaving equipment working, and vaccines cool, the impact of the conflict has been lessened.

What can be done to protect the children in Yemen?

The warring parties and those advising them, including the United Kingdom, must work to ensure that civilians are neither killed nor injured, and that schools and hospitals are not bombed. This means that indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions, random shelling from mortars, artillery and these vast bombs that shake the cities of Yemen should not be used where civilians live or gather together. Far too many civilians have been struck down in their homes, in markets, at weddings and in hospitals.

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A boy sits amid rubble, all that remains of his home, which was destroyed in an airstrike Unicef/2015/Yemen/Hamoud

It is difficult to work here, difficult to get into the country, the borders are closed, it is cut off by sea, No airlines fly here. Humanitarians here risk to fall victim to the fighting and are the targets of kidnapping. But the needs are so great, far more than we can at this moment cover. The humanitarian organisations that are here stand with the people of Yemen, but they need far greater resources, to protect them from the results of this brutal conflict. Donor countries must double the funding to this crisis.

The different parties to the conflict need to be convinced to keep health services, hospitals and health centres neutral. If this does not happen they will fragment and collapse. Not only will that lead to the death of children today but it will leave them vulnerable for decades to come. We have learnt from the Ebola crisis in West Africa, how the legacy of war can sap health systems, leaving people vulnerable to pandemics years after the last bullet has been fired. We must prevent this from happening again in Yemen. If the social services can be kept neutral, donors including the British government, should support them and fund local doctors, nurses and health centres.

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A boy holds a large piece of exploded artillery shell Unicef/2015/Yemen/Hamoud

The United Kingdom has influence on the warring sides in Yemen, it should use that to reduce the suffering of children here. It must pressure the warring parties to stop the use of indiscriminate weapons in civilian areas. United Kingdom's funding to Humanitarian organisations should be doubled, and that assistance should be allowed to support essential local state health services. And above all the United Kingdom must push for peace, the only true end to this catastrophe.

The author is the resident Representative for Unicef in Yemen since 2013.

Please sign the petition telling David Cameron to make protection from violence a priority at the Summit - unicef.uk/protect

At the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in May, we can change how the world responds to children in emergencies. The UK Government must do all it can to protect children from extreme violence and to protect the schools that keep children safe. Unicef UK is calling on the UK to sign up to international guidelines to protect schools and universities from being attacked or taken over for military purposes.

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