Yemen is suffering from a bombing campaign so furious that the UN has called it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Nine thousand people have died so far, three million have fled their homes, and millions more are at risk of starvation and serious illness.
Yemen: Children and War, the new documentary by filmmaker Khadija Al-Salami, shows the ravages of this war reported by a brother and sister aged 11 and eight respectively, and their nine year old nephew. They live in capital city Sana’a, where they witness frightening explosions every single day.
Khadija decided to work with them when she saw 11 year old Ahmed pretending to shoot down the bomber planes with a rifle. She spoke to his mother who said he had become obssessed with fighting since the war began, because he was so traumatised. “At that moment I had the idea to make the film with the children, because they don’t understand why there’s a war and why they are being attacked.”
Equipped with a smartphone, the trio interview wounded infants in hospital, a father who saw how his daughter was blown up by a bomb, a socially conscious rapper, and a social media star nicknamed Miss War because of the images she posts of herself to comment on the situation in the country. “I was called Miss War because of the photo showing a proud woman who gathers wood and carries water, with her cell phone charger” she says in the film. “The photo expresses the suffering and the perseverance of women and the people of Yemen.” At the time of writing we were unable to view her images on social media, and there are reports the Yemeni social networks have been blocked.
The UN estimates that one in ten people have been displaced internally, many living in refugee camps. When the children visit one of camps they find living conditions not fit for humans. Tents are sewn together from flour sacks, sewers are simple bore holes dug alongside them, schools and health clinics are a distant luxury. The refugees tell them no one has given them anything – they have nothing in the form of mattresses to sleep on or blankets to cover themselves with.
In another scene, the children talk to a four year old girl who has lost both her parents, brothers and an uncle. They ask where she lives and she points to a pile of rubble, where pots and pans that once belonged to her mother lie among the debris of the “farm” she now calls home. She tells them about hearing her father screaming her mother’s name and their house crumbling to the ground, while she hugs a teddy bear the whole time. “What did you do do?” they ask her. “I did like this” she says holding her hands over her ears. The three children sob throughout her account.
These are the stories Khadija wanted to document, because she says very little has been reported. “I wanted to tell everyone what’s going on in Yemen, because it’s a very hidden war.”
“Before the war we were fighting for women’s rights, now we have to fight for everyone’s rights”
Khadija is Yemen’s first female film producer. She has worked as the press and cultural attaché for the Yemen Embassy in Paris, and has received the Legion d’Honneur for her work helping to build relationships between France and Yemen.
In 2014 she made I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced, about the true story of a nine year old girl forced into an abusive marriage. It was a tale she was familiar with – she herself was married at 11 and raped by her husband, and ran away as a teenager.
Making this film was challenging because of frequent power outages, and with the start of the Yemeni conflict safety was an issue. Afterwards Khadija said she would make more films there if conditions changed. “There are so many stories to tell and it’s amazing in that way, the landscape, the people. But it’s so hard, especially for security. I took a risk when I made that film. If security was better I would.”
Yet three years later she returned, with the country in the grip of a full-blown war. The travel blockade meant it took her two years to come back, which was just the first hurdle. “This time it was not only electricity but the bombing, because we heard the planes hovering over our heads and we didn’t know where they were going to bomb. It was terrifying compared to the other problems we had, this time it was a matter of life and death.”
She was also stopped by the military along with her crew of three, who ran off and left her on her own. But she is matter of fact about this. “They were worried they would confiscate their cameras and take them to jail so they ran away, but I stayed because I wanted to confront them and I wanted to continue the film.”
Khadija’s next project is a documentary about a French woman who left everything to convert to Islam and move with her husband to a village in Yemen where a particularly conservative form of Islam is practiced. With this film, her motivation is personal. “I wanted to understand why someone like her who had everything wants to go to a life that I had to reject.”
With I Am Nojoom, her aim was to raise awareness of the issues women and young girls face. Child marriages were common when Khadija was a little girl, but had been pretty much rooted out in the large cities while in rural areas with little education it is still practised. Then the war began. “If we didn’t have this war we would have accomplished a lot” she says. “The film was hacked and people copied it, they were selling it on the street and people were buying it.” She sees the fact that people were curious enough to distribute the film on the black market, giving a bigger number of Yemenis the chance to view it, as a great achievement.
These strides have ground to a halt now that almost four years of war have plunged Yemen into a famine affecting 8 million people, while lack of access to water is making a cholera epidemic highly likely. And with families unable to make ends meet, child marriages are on the rise again.
“Before the war we were fighting for women’s rights, now we have to fight for everyone’s rights, because everybody has had them taken away. Now they’re trying to find shelters to hide from the bombing, to find food. Every 10 minutes a child dies from hunger if not from diseases and the bombs. It’s a disaster. It’s really sad and depressing.”