They spill out into the streets early in the morning; they have small bodies, pale faces and bold features. You might think that they are on their way to school, but a closer look reveals that they are not carrying any school bags or books.
"They" are the children of Yemen who have been pushed by the cruelty of war, hardships and the loss of family breadwinners to leave school and what they love the most, playing with the neighbourhood children in the decaying alleys. Instead, they have to join the workforce in order to scratch a living and provide for their families. The jobs that they do are usually unsuitable for their age, size and physical abilities.
Each one hides within them great tragedy and pain. Some have spent time on the front line, carrying heavy weapons on their tiny shoulders, in a flagrant violation of the rights of a child. You can find others underneath cars, learning how to fix them, with little or no regard for the great danger and risk that this poses. They rarely find anyone to tell them, "Watch out!"
Others can be found wandering the streets in the burning sun that scorches their faces and heads; they search through piles of rubbish for empty bottles and cans which they can sell for a little money, although that is not enough to make a living. Some sell newspapers and various other goods, which they carry all day, while yet more stand in lines to carry home heavy water or gas containers for their family. Children have been seen working in any number of dangerous places, such as bakeries, working with open fires.
They do not care about the consequences and risks, and they deal with men as if they themselves are men. With every day that passes, they lose a part of their innocence and childhood that they can never regain. There are too many lost childhoods in Yemen.
I asked one of these children as I bought something from him how long he stays out in the street.
"Until 9 pm," he replied. "Sometimes 10."
I was astonished. "Do you have your meals in the streets and only go home to sleep?"
"Why do you have to go through all this trouble? Are you working instead of your parents?"
With great sorrow he told me that his father had passed away, leaving behind five children, of whom he is the oldest. He is just 12. I was speechless.
I paid for the goods and left with a pit in my stomach, sad for his wasted childhood, which evaporates day after day under the burning sun, until it is no more.
No sane person would deny that this boy and those like him are victims. They do, however, disagree over who is to blame. It could be the parents, whose hearts have hardened towards their children, so they have thrown them onto the streets. It could be poverty and orphanhood, or it could be the war that spares neither young nor old.
Whoever is responsible, the situation worsens every day given the absence of the relevant authorities to protect these children and preserve their rights. Nobody is upholding the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which holds governments responsible for ensuring that all children have their rights provided for, including the right to education, protection, safety and freedom. Article 38 of this Convention states: "Governments must do everything they can to protect and care for children affected by war. Children under 15 should not be forced or recruited to take part in a war or join the armed forces."
However, such agreements are neither implemented nor given a second thought in this tragic situation in which children are paying the highest price. Thousands of Yemeni children have fallen victim to this situation; they've been killed or wounded, or feel that they have to work. The number of children who have dropped out of school is now in the hundreds of thousands because teachers have gone on strike due to the non-payment of their salaries and pay cuts, as well as the grinding poverty caused by the war.
The protection of childhood requires political action to be taken, followed by concerted efforts by government ministries and civil society in the form of non-governmental organisations. Such efforts must be focused on reducing and ultimately eliminating the abuse of children's rights, and relieving the burden put on these children's small shoulders.
This article was first published in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 15 April 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.