How do you explain bombs and cholera to kids? You lie

The situation inside Sab'een Hospital in Sana'a, Yemen. Credit: UNICEF, Moohialdin Alzekri
The situation inside Sab'een Hospital in Sana'a, Yemen. Credit: UNICEF, Moohialdin Alzekri

How do you raise a family in a war zone? Our Observer Hisham al-Omeisy lives in Yemen’s capital Sana’a with his wife and two boys aged seven and 11. He tells us what it is like living in a country crippled by famine, disease, and a civil war, which has been ongoing for two years and has left millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance.

From gifs, cat memes, and dark humoured jokes (“Yemen is now a vegetarian’s nightmare”, he tweeted on May 17, because of a recent ban on fresh produce) to sharp comments on political corruption, Al-Omeisy’s Twitter feed is a candid insight into life in the war-torn country, which is now in the grip of another severe outbreak of cholera.

“The city is devastated — it’s like a horror movie”

Yes, it does feel like living in ground zero of a conflict zone. I often take photos and shoot videos from home of bombs dropping and explosions nearby. There haven’t been many bombs recently. There are periods if lull, followed by intense bombing, and so on for the past two years and more. You walk around Sana'a and it’s clear that the city is devastated – although not only by the bombing. Generally life has slowed down and livelihoods have been destroyed. Many businesses have shut down. People are struggling to feed themselves. The streets crowded by beggars, and the prices skyrocketing is not helping when people are unemployed and broke. Added to this, there are severe shortages of basic services and commodities, and a new health crisis with the cholera outbreak. It's quickly becoming akin to a horrific scene from a horror movie.

Yemen imports 90% of its food, so when the Saudi-led coalition imposed a nationwide blockade, it was choking the life out of Yemenis in a kind of collective punishment. Many moved to using local produce to survive, and now eating those puts you at risk too. There’s a water shortage crisis too. In addition to less food and water supply sources due to the cholera outbreak, we also have to worry about a lack of drugs in event of infection.

Self-imposed quarantines

The situation is bleak, which is why many are enforcing a semi self-imposed quarantine. I for one am largely staying home and banning my kids from leaving the house. Going to friends’ homes, to get groceries, or any trips are out of the question for my kids.


Schools are still open and administrators have assured us that the necessary precautions have been taken, but in these current conditions, and with zero accountability due to state failure, many parents are not taking the risk. We’re nearing finals and the end of the school year, so we're worried that attendance is a must but we’re planning to be on standby near schools during the coming week in order for kids to just go in, take the exams, and then we can yank them out to take them back home.

Al-Omeisy admits that he is in a fortunate position as one of the few people still with an income and so is able to afford the price hikes in the country. He says that he tries not to talk about the war with his children – but obviously they can’t help but be aware of what is happening around them.

The situation inside Sab'een Hospital in Sana'a, Yemen. Credit: UNICEF, Moohialdin Alzekri

“They are traumatised enough”

They've been traumatised enough going through this war, there’s no need to further elaborate and expose them to ugly realities.

They're not blind though, they know bombs are falling, people are suffering, but I try to shield them by distracting them, lessening the brunt of facts, and at times, outright lying to them. This one time my son asked me about airstrikes and bombs hitting and killing children, and I had to tell him they didn't so he wouldn't be anxious.

My children have become more fearful and anxious because of the war. A little bang from simply slamming a door shut makes them visibly flinch and ready to bolt to the basement — a reaction they developed during major airstrikes where bombs were the cue for everyone at home to quickly run and hide in the ad hoc bombs bunker that is our basement. I'm sure there will be more post-trauma ramifications discovered later when and if peace ever comes, but it’s hard to notice now while the war is still ongoing.

Yemen’s civil war is being fought between the Sunni government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi (backed by a Saudi-led multinational coalition supported by Britain, France, and the United States, amongst others), and the Houthi rebel movement that is attempting to seize power. A blockade enforced by the coalition has pushed the country to the brink of famine, with civilians across the country facing acute malnutrition.

The situation inside Sab'een Hospital in Sana'a, Yemen. Credit: UNICEF, Moohialdin Alzekri

As infrastructure in the country breaks down, over half of the country’s healthcare facilities have stopped functioning. The first outbreak of cholera began in October 2016 and lasted until April this year. A second one has just begun, with as many as 23,425 people piling into health centres in the last three weeks — around the same as the numbers seen during the first outbreak, which lasted for six months. Health systems are struggling to cope with the influx.

Rajat Madhok is the chief of communications and advocacy for UNICEF in Yemen and told FRANCE 24 how hospitals are pushed to breaking point.

"Social structures in Yemen are collapsing"

Doctors and health workers haven’t been paid for over eight months, sanitation workers have only now been paid. If you drive through Sanaa there’s garbage lying on the street, there’s stagnant water everywhere. There are limited medical supplies. The social structures that take care of people in Yemen are collapsing.

Treatment centres and hospitals are being flooded by patients. People are panicking, and the first thing they want to do is go to any functioning hospital. With over 50% of health facilities not functioning the way they should, there are limited places where people can go.

What I saw on a recent visit to a children’s hospital in Sana’a was shocking. We entered the ward and I could barely walk through the numbers of patients lying on the floor of the ward because the beds were all occupied. There were mostly children. Some people were lying on beds without mattresses, in any place that they could find, with their IV units hanging on the walls next to them. The sad part is when I went and spoke to quite a few families. I spoke to one 39-year-old woman who was there with four children, all infected with cholera. She had nine children in total. They were living near a contaminated water source.

Around a third of all suspected cholera cases are children. The reason for this is that they are more vulnerable due to malnourishment and so more susceptible.

Because of the conflict, there are two million internally displaced people across Yemen, many of whom try to come to the capital. As a result, the cholera has hit the city the hardest because of the huge population and high density of inhabitants. Limited water sources mean that if one water source is contaminated then the huge number of people sharing that one water source will be affected.