Eman, children living through the war in Yemen. Photo credit: Mohammed Awadh/Save the Children

War in Yemen: who, what, when?

The current war in Yemen – where cholera, hunger and war pose a triple threat  – is being called one of the worst humanitarian disasters of our time. But how did it start? Who is involved? And what is the impact on children?

How did it start?

In March 2015, a complex and long-running political crisis in Yemen became a full-scale conflict.

This happened after a coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, launched a military operation in support of the Yemeni government. Their aim was to dislodge Houthi forces from territory seized in previous months.

Before the war began, Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab world, with over 54% of the population living in absolute poverty.

Who’s fighting who?

Broadly speaking, we can divide the groups involved into three categories: the Houthis, the Saudi Arabian-led coalition, and Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

  • Houthis – In September 2014, the Houthi opposition seized control of parts of Yemen, including the capital Sana’a. In February 2015, it dissolved the parliament and replaced the government with a presidential council. This prompted Yemen’s President Hadi to flee to Aden, in the south of the country, and then to Saudi Arabia. The Houthis are supported by former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
  • Saudi-led coalition – In March 2015, a coalition of ten states led by Saudi Arabia – endorsed by Western governments, including the US and Britain – launched a military intervention against Houthi targets, at the request of President Hadi. The military operation was initially airborne but more recently has involved ground troops. Houthis have also launched missile rocket attacks into Saudi Arabia from their border positions.
  • Al-Qaeda and ISIS – In the context of a security vacuum, the dynamics in Yemen are complicated even more by the presence of several non-state groups, including AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) and ISIS.
Map of the war, Yemen and which groups control which areas.
Map of Yemen, showing which areas are contested and controlled by which groups

What’s the impact of the fighting?

Children – killed and wounded

Reports say that since March 2015 the war has claimed nearly 6,000 lives, almost half of whom are believed to be civilians.

The impact on children has been devastating.

Reports say that 747 children have been killed and over 1,100 wounded. But actual figures are believed to be higher. The insecurity has led 168,000 people to flee the country. More than 2.5 million are internally displaced.

The blockade

After the conflict escalated in 2015, the Saudi-led coalition imposed a de-facto blockade. This continues to cause severe shortages of food, medicine and fuel. Insecurity and access restrictions make it hard to get aid into the country and get humanitarian assistance to people in the hardest to reach areas.

Schools and hospitals

Hospitals have been destroyed and damaged in aerial bombardments and ground attacks. Together with a lack of vital supplies and staff, this has resulted in hundreds of health facilities either closing or partially closing.

Intensive bombing has also resulted in the closure of schools. Over 1,000 schools remained unusable at the end of 2015 as a result of conflict-related damage, or because they are being used as shelters for internally displaced persons.

Zuhoor*, 1 year old, from Yemen plays with a doll, following surgery to amputate her fingers after being crushed by debris and badly burnt in an airstrike, during the war, Yemen.
Zuhoor*, 1 year old, had some of her fingers amputated after being crushed by debris and badly burnt in an airstrike, during the war in Yemen.

It’s getting worse

Despite peace talks, the conflict has intensified in recent weeks with particularly heavy bombing in the densely populated city of Sana’a.

The fighting has now led to the biggest outbreak of cholera in the world. At the moment, 1 million malnourished children are living in areas where cholera infection levels are high.

So far, the international community has failed to act to protect Yemen’s children. All sides are at fault for this war and its horrific consequences – and they must all be held to account for it.

The UN: turning a blind eye?

Every year the United Nations publishes the ‘Children in Armed Conflict’ report. This report names the countries and other forces that are bombing schools and hospitals, killing and maiming children.

Last year, following intense pressure from Saudi Arabia, the previous UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, removed the Saudi-led coalition from the report despite its actions in Yemen. In the 2016 report, Houthi forces were listed along with other parties to Yemen’s conflict, including government troops and Al Qaeda.

And while the UN turned a blind eye, the Saudi-led coalition continued to kill and maim children, bomb schools and destroy hospitals.

How we can stop the conflict

We know that the Saudi-led coalition has been responsible for at least 23 attacks – which have either hit children’s schools or hospitals, or killed and maimed children.

In this years’ report, we want to ensure all parties involved in the war are held to account and that no one is powerful enough to get away with killing children.

We’ve launched a petition to the UN Secretary General urging him to re-list the Saudi-led coalition. But it won’t work without your help.

Please sign the petition if you haven’t already and share it as widely as possible.

Leave a Reply


  • Berna Fitzgerald

    What can one say – it’s horrific, horrible , wrong..What can we DO?

  • Hi Bernie,there is lots that you can do.For example you could sign our petition calling for the UK government to stop the sale of British weapons to Saudi Arabia. Our petition will be sent to the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson with the request, amongst others, that the UK refrain from selling arms to any party in the conflict if there is a risk that they may violate international law. You can read the full petition request and sign it at https://action.savethechildren.org.uk/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=7&ea.campaign.id=60631. Alternatively you could also make a donation to help support our work in Yemen; you can make a donation at http://www.savethechildren.org.uk/what-we-do/emergencies/yemen-crisis-please-donate-now-help-children . I hope that you decide to help. Thanks,Yvette.

  • David Stewart

    This brings shame on the UN.

  • Prodyot (Khokon) Guha

    Yemen – I consider the civilian casualties primarily caused by Saudi bombings and military action simply wrong. The United Nations should continue publicizing parties responsible to the world at large.

  • Michael Ellison

    It’s time the UN stopped turning a blind eye to the Saudi coalition’s devastating actions in Yemen.