“Don’t bury me.” 6-year-old Fareed Shawky cries as doctors treat his many shrapnel wounds.
He is just a child. But more than six months of war in his country, Yemen, had taught him the bitter realities of conflict. People die, then they are buried.
“Don’t bury me,” Fareed says again through tears.
His young father stands across from him and smiles as if to dismiss his child’s fears.
“I was trying to calm him down and at the same time my tears are falling, but I did not want him to feel it,” al-Thamry Shawky says, “I told him, ‘Don’t be afraid, my son. You will get better.'”
The interaction was filmed this month by Ahmed Basha, a local photographer who recounted the story to CNN.
“I thought he was just injured,” Basha says from his home in Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city. “I wasn’t even sure I had been recording when he said this. I was more concerned with my still photography.”
Four days later, Fareed died of wounds to his head. The boy was buried, hurriedly, by relatives. His own father could not bring himself to break his promise to his son.
“I didn’t bury him. I couldn’t bury him.” The father told Basha through tears, “I stood far away as they put him in the ground.”
When Basha got word of the child’s death, he began sifting through his footage. He published the video of the boy begging to live and began telling the world his story.
It was quickly picked up by social media at a time when little else on Yemen’s war seems to gain much attention.
It is the war the world forgot, activists say, and little Fareed is reminding us.
A ‘human catastrophe’
Two rival factions are vying for power in Yemen: the Shiite Houthi rebel movement and the backers of ousted President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.
But the conflict is not binary. A secessionist movement in the south, a strong al Qaeda presence along the coast and the recent rise of ISIS all contribute to an increasingly volatile situation.
The battle for control triggered the formation of an Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, to intervene on behalf of the Hadi’s internationally recognized government.
The Saudis and their predominantly Sunni allies consider the Houthis, who hail from northern Yemen, to be proxies for the Shiite government of Iran and fear another Shiite-dominated state in the region. The Houthis deny Iran supplies any direct material support.
Airstrikes, battles and other spurts of bloodshed have taken their toll. The United Nations has attempted repeatedly, but to no avail, to resolve what it calls a “human catastrophe” that had killed or wounded more than 27,000 people as of midsummer, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and has left 80% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance.
Four out of every five Yemenis are lacking the most basic things, including water, food, adequate medical care, and shelter, according to OCHA.
Fareed’s story spreads
For all this suffering, that doesn’t mean Yemenis have given up.
Fareed’s story is now emblematic of Yemen’s struggles — and resilience. Activists are using the hashtag #dontburyme to call for an end to the bloodshed. The boy is being called the “Aylan Kurdi of Yemen” a reference to the Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish shore in September.
“Fareed saw burial of neighbor kid killed by Houthi shell & was traumatized. Hence pleaded #DontBuryMe .. #Yemen” Hishal al-Omeisy, a prominent Yemeni activist, posted on Twitter.
The hashtag originally started in Arabic, but as the story spread, more users began using the English version.
“A child in #taiz told his father after he was injured: do not bury me. Sadly, the father could not [fulfill] his son’s call.#Dontburyme” Kawkab Ahmed, a Turkish observer, said on the microblogging site.
No safe place
When Saudi Arabia announced it would lead a coalition to forcibly remove the Houthis from its neighbor to the south, it launched an aerial campaign sure to devastate one of the poorest and least developed countries in the Middle East.
The Houthi movement formed in 1994 with the explicit political aim of gaining greater autonomy and defending its follower’s religious traditions as members of the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam. The group has been at war with the central government for more than a decade, but their entry into Sanaa in September brought things to a head.
Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah resigned in January under Houthi pressure, a few months after the rebels had fought their way into the capital, Sanaa, and demanded greater political influence. The kingdom says an exiled Hadi pleaded for military intervention in a letter posted by the country’s foreign ministry in March.
More than six months into the Gulf-led offensive, Saudi Arabia has yet to reach its stated political objective. Instead, the war has shattered the already beleaguered population.
Mother: ‘Fareed was my whole life’
Fareed’s family blame the Houthi rebels for his death. The boy was playing hide-and-seek just outside his home when he was struck in a missile attack. Four other children also were wounded, Basha told CNN.
“All of a sudden I heard a loud explosion. Dust was falling on our heads. Everyone felt as if the blast was right next to them,” al-Thamry Shawky told Basha. “I ran out into the street with no shirt to look for Fareed. Where is Fareed?”
Neighbors told Shawky his child had been taken by an ambulance to a nearby medical facility. He rushed to be by his son’s side. Rubble had fallen on Fareed’s head, leaving him with a large painful bump. There were bits of shrapnel digging into his skin, all over his small body.
Shortly after pleading with his father to save him, Fareed fell into a coma. Last Saturday, he died.
“Fareed was my whole life,” his mother says. “It was as if someone snatched my heart when I heard him say, ‘Don’t bury me.'”
U.N. report: Most dangerously violent place for civilians
Children and education are among the first victims of a conflict where each of the warring parties has demonstrated a flagrant disregard for civilian life, according to an Amnesty International report published this summer.
There is no safe place. Not even for children.
Of the Yemenis who have been killed or injured by explosive weapons in towns or cities, 95% were civilians, according to a recent U.N. report. About 500 of the dead were children, according to UNICEF.
“Our findings show Yemen is the worst country in the world this year for civilians affected by explosive violence, more devastating even than the crisis in Syria and Iraq,” Robert Perkins, author of the report said this month.
“An already vulnerable population is now faced with a country reduced to rubble by falling bombs and rockets. Their homes destroyed, their families torn apart, it will take a many years to recover from the last few terrible months in Yemen.”
Fareed’s family blame the Houthi rebels for his death. The boy was playing just outside his home when he was struck in a missile attack. Four other children also were wounded.
“The family were thankful Fareed’s story reached the world,” Basha tells CNN, “They hope this will change the lives of Yemenis who have been suffering for so long.”