Monday,20 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Monday,20 May, 2019
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

New suffering in Yemen

Yemen is witnessing a humanitarian crisis as a result of the conflict in the country, and children are bearing the brunt of the suffering, writes Nehal Al-Ashkar


Humanitarian crisis in Yemen

Buthaina, a five-year-old Yemeni girl and the only surviving member of her family from the bombardment of the capital Sanaa last August, attracted the attention of many around the world after painful scenes emerged of freeing her from the rubble of her home.  

Buthaina was taken to hospital after being severely injured, her eyes completely swollen, so she could not open them. The pictures aroused widespread sympathy worldwide through social-networking sites.

The picture of this young girl trying to open one eye with her fingers after her other eye had been lost was widely spread on the sites of newspapers and news agencies. Activists also launched the hashtags #Bothaina_the_ eyes_ of_ humanism, # eyes_bothina, and #Buthaina _yes _to_stop_thewar to express their anger at particularly the children’s suffering in the war.

One Yemeni diplomatic source said that “Buthaina is not the first victim, and she won’t be the last. The victims of the military errors and the errors of aviation and artillery strikes have been very many since the outbreak of the war.”

Jens Laerke of the United Nations Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement on 7 November that “the total number of civilian casualties since March 2015 [in Yemen] stood at 14,168, including 5,295 people killed and 8,873 injured.”

The numbers, however, were “based on the casualties individually verified by the OCHA in Yemen,” Laerke said, adding that “the actual numbers were likely to be far higher.”

Things were going from bad to worse, he said, and there had been “dramatic developments in Yemen over recent days”. Humanitarian operations “were currently blocked as a result of the closure of air and sea ports in Yemen ordered by the Saudi-led coalition.”

He said that “OCHA was very concerned about the likely rapid negative impact of the closure of entry ports on the already dire humanitarian situation in the country, where seven million people were fighting against famine-like conditions and were completely reliant on humanitarian aid to survive.”

The United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) expressed similar concerns in a statement on 9 November. This warned against the effect of the “total closure of air, sea and land access to Yemen on the people in the country, particularly the 2.2 million women of child-bearing age, among whom some 352,000 are pregnant.”

“The lack of food, poor nutrition, the unprecedented scale of the cholera outbreak, and the near erosion of national health system is also making Yemen extremely dangerous for all, especially for women and girls,” the UNPF added.

The Yemeni diplomatic source said that “there were enormous humanitarian problems as a result of the war, with children particularly bearing the brunt of the crisis.”

“Some 16,500 schools have been bombarded, and the rest have become military barracks for both sides, which means that more than 1.6 million Yemeni children are facing a lack of education,” he said.

Abu Bakr Bazeb, director of the Yemeni Media Centre in Egypt, an information agency, said that “more than four million Yemeni students have not yet started the school year because teachers have not been paid for more than 11 months.”

The direct recruitment of children in the fighting is also a terrible problem in Yemen. “The parties in the conflict recruit children from the ages of 13 to 18, taking advantage of the chaos and poverty in Yemeni families. They are recruiting thousands of children, which is a terrible humanitarian problem,” one source said.

A recent BBC article, “The Yemen Conflict: How Bad is the Humanitarian Crisis?” says that “two years of conflict have devastated Yemen, left 18 million people in need of some kind of humanitarian assistance, and created the largest food security emergency in the world.”

Earlier UN estimates showed that “more than 7,600 civilians have been killed and close to 42,000 others injured since the conflict between forces loyal to exiled Yemeni president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and those allied to the Houthi rebel movement escalated in March 2015. Fighting on the ground and air strikes on rebel-held areas by a Saudi-led coalition backed by the US and UK have displaced more than three million people. And seven million people do not know where their next meal might come from.”

However, these figures have been contested, and in comments on the UN figures of the numbers displaced in Yemen the Arab League has said that half the UN figures would be more accurate. Arab League Spokesman Mahmoud Afifi said that “a more nuanced approach was needed to monitor, record and document violations in Yemen.” He added that the continued deterioration of humanitarian conditions in Yemen required practical steps to mobilise the necessary efforts to deal with them as soon as possible.

“The efforts made by the Arab Coalition to deal with difficult situations and alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people” should not be overlooked, he said.

The UN has included both the Arab Coalition in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia and the Houthi Ansar Allah Movement on its black list of those responsible for the killing of children in the country. According to a UN report, “the operations of the Coalition and Houthis in Yemen in 2016 resulted in the death and injury of about 1,100 children, with the Arab Coalition responsible for 683 cases of killing or wounding children, while the Houthis and their supporters caused 414 cases of killing or wounding children.”

Media Spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Cairo Baleegh Al-Mekhlafi said that the UN report focused on already known humanitarian aspects of the conflict without suggesting a political solution to the crisis. “All are focusing on the humanitarian tragedy,” he said, without looking for political solutions.

He said that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen had thus far led to 17 million people suffering from food shortages and more than two million children suffering from acute malnutrition.

“The humanitarian tragedy is immense, no doubt, but a year has passed since the peace process negotiations took place in Kuwait and nothing has changed. The militias are taking advantage of this failure to start new negotiations, compounding the problem,” Al-Mekhlafi said.

‘The lack of food, poor nutrition, the unprecedented scale of the cholera outbreak, and the near erosion of national health system is also making Yemen extremely dangerous for all, especially for women and girls’

CONTINUING BLOCKADE: A blockade had been imposed on Yemen because of the conflict, and this has meant that the amount of aid and fuel allowed into the country has decreased to a trickle and the amount of food reduced.

The little that does make it in by sea often spends weeks waiting to be offloaded because the cranes at the Yemeni port of Hudaidah have been bombed. When new cranes were donated by the US to the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in order to speed up deliveries of vital humanitarian aid, these were stopped at sea and refused entry. Aid agencies are struggling to fund deliveries because so much must be spent on transportation rather than the supplies themselves.

Despite the enormous scale and urgency of the crisis, the UN’s aid appeal for Yemen has reached only 39 per cent of its $2.9 billion target.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s Health Ministry says the closure of the airport in Sanaa has led to some 10,000 deaths from treatable illnesses because people cannot travel to receive medical care. The country simply does not have the capacity to deal with the humanitarian catastrophe.

The OCHA earlier warned that “an estimated 18.8 million people, 69 per cent of Yemen’s population, has already needed some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance.”

 “This includes 10.3 million in acute need, who urgently require immediate, life-saving assistance in at least one sector,” the BBC said. “Some 3.3 million people have been displaced since March 2015. As of January 2017, more than two million remained displaced — more than six times the number recorded at the end of 2014 — and one million had returned to their homes. An additional 180,000 have fled the country. The government says there are also between 1.7 and two million refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Yemen, 460,000 of whom need humanitarian assistance.”

Today, humanitarian operations are blocked as a result of the closure of air and sea ports in Yemen by the coalition. “Reports had been received that in some areas the blockade had already begun impacting the daily life of Yemenis,” the OCHA said. “For example, the price of fuel has jumped by 60 per cent overnight and the price of cooking gas has doubled. Long lines of cars are reported at petrol stations.”

It warned that “if supplies come to a halt, food insecurity will deepen and the world will be confronted with an even greater humanitarian crisis,” adding that “it is vital that food, fuel and medicine imports should continue to enter the country.”

The WFP had earlier estimated that 17 million Yemenis were already considered food insecure and 6.8 million severely food insecure, three million more than in January 2017. About 3.3 million children and pregnant or breast-feeding women are acutely malnourished, including 462,000 children under five who face severe acute malnutrition, it said. That represents a 57 per cent increase since late 2015 and threatens the lives and life-long prospects of those affected, according to the UN.

Commenting on the crisis, Al-Mekhlafi told Al-Ahram Weekly that “putting Sanaa airport or the port of Hudaidah under international authority has not been approved yet. Consequently, international aid is still unable to get through, and the militias are benefiting from this situation.”

After the coup [led by the Houthi Movement], the so-called economic truce between the government and the coup leaders took place under the supervision of the international financial institutions and all revenues were supposed to go to Sanaa to pay employees’ salaries. The government was committed to supply its revenues to the Central Bank in Sanaa during the length of the truce period, but the Houthis began manipulating the salaries issue and recruiting their own staff in the provinces and in Sanaa.”

“They are using government revenues to finance war and further polarisation. The militias have not followed the agreement, and this has worsened the humanitarian situation,” he said.

According to the BBC, “Yemen usually imports more than 90 per cent of its staple food. But a naval embargo imposed by the Saudi-led Coalition, fighting around the government-controlled port of Aden and air strikes on the rebel-held port of Hudaidah, have severely reduced imports since 2015.

The restrictions on imports of fuel, essential for maintaining the water supply, combined with damage to pumps and sewage treatment facilities, also mean that 14.4 million people now lack access to safe drinking water or sanitation, including 8.2 million who are in acute need.”

There have been proposals to put the country’s airports and ports under international protection as a way of alleviating the situation.

ORIGINS OF THE CONFLICT: The present conflict has its roots in the popular uprising in Yemen in 2011 that unseated the country’s long-time president Ali Abdallah Saleh, whose General People’s Congress (GPC) Party had dominated the country’s political life since Yemeni unification in 1990.

Protests spread quickly across the country, and when defections from the military after the 2011 uprising threatened to trigger a civil war, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), with the support of the UN and assorted western states, presented an initiative under the terms of which Saleh handed over power to his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, while his GPC Party entered into a power-sharing arrangement with an alliance of opposition parties.

The economic and political situation in Yemen continued to decline. In January 2014, the Hadi government announced a plan to cut government fuel subsidies in order to secure outside support from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This increased the price of fuel by up to 90 per cent and met with widespread popular outrage. The Houthi Movement took advantage of this ill-feeling to enter the capital Sanaa, setting up a shadow government.

For Al-Mekhlafi, “the dispute between Ali Abdallah Saleh and the Houthis [to which he is allied] will not solve much of the problem. It’s clear now that Ali Abdallah Saleh is the weakest link in the coup coalition, and that he no longer has an influential role. The dispute between Ali Abdallah Saleh and the Houthis has put power in the hands of the Houthi militias, which will aggravate the humanitarian situation. The humanitarian tragedy is vast, because Sanaa has about one million residents. Meanwhile, the international community is loath to intervene militarily, largely because of fears of an aggravation in the humanitarian situation.”

Meanwhile, the Yemeni refugee crisis is also intensifying. M S, a young man in his 30s, decided to flee from the port city of Aden to Europe after the escalation in Yemen that led to the deaths of thousands and the displacement of thousands more. He crossed the sea with others, arriving in the East African city of Djibouti before moving on to Libya, which was already caught up in crisis. From there, M S and his friends sought to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. However, the group fell into the hands of the Libyan army and was detained in the country.

One Yemeni source told the Weekly that “at the beginning of the war, there were only about 260 cases on the asylum list to Europe. Yemenis hate the idea of migration as they are proud of their roots in the villages and tribes they belong to.” Now, however, that number has increased exponentially.

“Yemeni emigration compared to Syrian is still negligible, however,” Al-Mekhlafi said. “The number of those registered in refugee camps is only around 2,300 in Egypt.”

Internal migration has seemed the best solution for Yemenis so far, and some 300,000 have migrated from the cities to the countryside. Aban Yassin, a young man in 30s who works as a photographer, moved to Egypt in 2012. “The main reason I decided to leave was fear of the coup plotters and the resistance forces,” he said.

“After I was threatened by the Houthis when they came to my house, I tried to escape before I was arrested. I moved to Aden and waited for the papers that would allow me to leave. The real difficulty I encountered during my trip was in the way I escaped, especially from the Houthi militias. Had I not had help from my friends, I would not have succeeded.”  

“Egypt was always my destination, as residing in Egypt is less complicated than in other countries. In Egypt I live with my brother who has been sentenced to death by the Houthis,” Yassin said.
The greatest obstacle that faces the Yemenis now is the failure of the international community to meet its obligations regarding the humanitarian crisis in the country. “More than 70 humanitarian organisations have been working to help those in need in Yemen. However, access constraints, damaged infrastructure and unreliable access to fuel, together with a lack of funding, have hampered their efforts,” the BBC said.

According to Al-Mekhlafi, “the UN has been very deficient in overseeing humanitarian operations on the ground. The situation now is that the port of Hudaidah is still under the control of the Houthis. Most of the humanitarian aid is sent to Yemen via this port, and part of the aid is exploited in different ways. Part of it goes to the black market to finance terrorist operations, for example. The problem is that the UN does not have its own people on the ground to oversee this process and to ensure that this assistance reaches the deserving.”

“Another problem is that the reports sent by the UN envoy to Yemen and the United Nations do not explicitly blame the militias for the lack of aid, and this is one of the most important problems facing relief operations. When disease began to spread in the country, international organisations, especially the World Health Organisation [WHO], agreed with the UAE to send more aid to sick people, but the problem is still that this aid has to come in through Sanaa Airport and Hudaidah.”
Today, Yemen is experiencing outbreaks of cholera and other diseases on an “unprecedented scale,” according to the WHO. Since April, cholera cases have been reported in 22 governorates, or 96 per cent of the country. “The cumulative total from 27 April to 5 November 2017 is 908,400 suspected cholera cases and 2,192 associated deaths, 991 confirmed by culture,” it said.

More than 5,000 Yemenis are estimated to contract the disease, or have symptoms of it, on a daily basis. Children under the age of 15 account for more than 40 per cent of cases, and people over the age of 60 make up a third of all deaths from the disease.

In a statement last week, the UN called for “immediate humanitarian access to reach those in need, especially when Yemen already has one of the highest maternal death rates in the Arab world.”

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