Students attend a class on the first day of the new school year in the capital Sana’a on Sunday. Some 73 per cent of Yemen’s teachers have not received their salaries in a year. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Classrooms in Yemen’s capital and rebel-held north remained largely empty on the first official day of school Sunday, as war, hunger and an economic collapse leave millions struggling to survive.

“The future of 4.5 million students hangs in the balance,” Rajat Madhok, spokesman of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Yemen, told AFP.

A union strike over the suspension of teachers’ salaries has ground education in areas controlled by the Iran-backed Al Houthi rebels to a halt, three years into a war between the Iran-backed rebel alliance and a government backed by Saudi Arabia.

UNICEF estimates 13,146 schools, or 78 per cent of all of Yemen’s schools, have been hit by the salary crunch, many of them unable to open for the first day of school.

Nearly 500 schools have been destroyed by the conflict, repurposed as shelters or commandeered by armed factions in a war that has killed thousands and pushed the country to the brink of famine.

Schools in the capital Sana’a and across northern Yemen were forced to delay the September 30 start of the scholastic year by two weeks after the rebels failed to pay teachers’ salaries.

In government-held parts of Yemen, however, most schools this year opened as scheduled on October 1.

Al Houthi-controlled areas became unable to pay the salaries after the internationally-recognised president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi was forced to move the central bank to Aden in August after the Iran-backed rebels had looted the funds to pay soldiers and fighters waging war against it.

Hadi came to power in early 2012 after massive Arab Spring protests ousted former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Hadi was forced to decamp to the city of Aden after escaping Al Houthi-imposed house arrest after the rebels took over the government in a coup in 2014.

Since then, Hadi has shifted government headquarters to Aden from where he has led an offensive to liberate Al Houthi-occupied territories.

With help from the Saudi-led Arab coalition, the Yemeni army has achieved widespread gains in many provinces, but Al Houthis still control the capital, Sana’a, and most northern provinces including Hodeida, Ibb, Mahweet, Yareem, Amran, Baydha and Hajja.