Catastrophic lives: Yemenis under conflict

Khadija Elrabti, Wednesday 11 Sep 2019

Unending wars have pitched Yemenis against the odds in pursuit of basic survival. Yet global awareness of the gravity and urgency of the situation remains lacking, writes Khadija Elrabti

A girl, centre, suspected of cholera infection is treated at a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019 AP

Yemen has been devastated by a number of never-ending wars ever since 2014. They include a regional war, a civil war between north and south Yemen, a sectarian war and a war between the Southern Transitional Council and the exiled Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood government. Five years later and ordinary Yemeni civilians are still suffering, some barely living or even barely alive. As time ground on, the situation in Yemen only arrived to stalemate.

What is now happening in the poorest country in the Middle East has mostly led its people to a dead end. Civilians have been stuck in a whirlwind of chaos and an escalation in poverty.

The situation has forced young children to grow before their time, adults to sell their properties for basic commodities and has separated families either through displacement or by death.

An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesperson who is located in Yemen provided some staggering statistics when asked to sum up on-the-ground conditions in a few words.

“The humanitarian situation is catastrophic and the resilience of Yemenis is reaching a breaking point as more than 80 per cent of the population needs aid,” said the ICRC’s Nathalie Bekdache.

Those living in this tangled situation have not been able to carry on their lives in a regular manner. The complications that are a result of war have had a harsh impact on both the young and elderly as well as both male and female citizens.

“It has displaced 3.3 million, the majority of which are women and children. The cost of living has significantly increased with a food basket that contains rice, lentils, milk, flour, beans, cooking oil, sugar and salt costing 60 per cent more than prior to the conflict,” Bekdache continued. “Two million children are out of school, many becoming the breadwinners. Some 7.4 million people need nutritional support and 50 per cent of all children are stunted,” she added.


CHILDREN OF WAR: Childhood is a time to develop physically, mentally and socially. It is supposed to be a time of discovery and play, all in preparation of bringing a healthy and educated generation forward to the world. This, however, is not the case for many children in Yemen. Instead, they are growing up under airstrikes and constant turmoil.

In the streets of Yemen’s capital Sanaa, youngsters learn to adapt and survive by joining the labour force. Their lives seem to be always in danger. If it’s not the war that causes them damage then it is the hazardous conditions in which they have to work so they can help support their families.

Education has become a luxury not all children can afford while many children around the world take it for granted. According to Bekdache, two million children are not in school and this is not merely because of 2,000 schools being turned into shelters or because they were wrecked by the warfare. It is more complicated. Even with those obstacles, some children are still determined to study amongst the debris and rubble.

Even at times when children want to play, that too can cost them a great deal. The environment around them has made it difficult and dangerous. Some areas have become unlivable.

Bekdache talks about a dangerous situation that a ICRC weapons contamination specialist came across.

“A boy lost a leg and sustained multiple injuries when he picked up an UXO mistaking it for a toy,” said Bekdache. “He took it home and when he realised it didn’t do anything that he wanted it to do, he dropped it and it cost him his limb, with his mother and his sister also being injured.”

Those who have not been physically injured are mentally scarred. After being exposed to all the consequences of war, whether its constant displacement, violence, gruesome scenery or watching people die right before their eyes, these have all caused traumas no adults should have to go through, let alone children. It has left them constantly anxious and nervous when it comes to loud noises. In fact, many of them go days without sleeping because they have war-related nightmares.


THE INTENSIFICATION OF POVERTY: Between the country’s agriculture suffering and constraints on imports there has been a severe shortage in food and other life essentials. Many families have barely been able to put food on the table and in addition to that the severe increase in unemployment has collapsed their capacity to earn.

Figures show that more than 10 million Yemenis have been categorised under stage three out of five stages of hunger, while five million have been categorised as stage four, which is considered an emergency.

Even for those who are still employed, some have not been given their salaries for years due to the country’s situation. Women have resorted to selling their most precious belongings, such as jewellery, just so that they can buy food. Many families have gone into debt because they had no other way of purchasing bare essentials.

Circumstances worsen day by day as rubbish piles up in the streets and the water becomes contaminated, causing more damage than ever, especially with diseases such as meningitis and other severe illnesses. Some 40,000 cases have been suspected for Cholera alone.


THE COLLAPSE OF THE HEALTH CARE SYSTEM: Due to the conflict, Yemen’s health system has been left lacking. According to Bekdache, 49 per cent of health facilities are not running, the country has limited equipment and drugs and less than 30 per cent of essential medicines is actually entering Yemen.

“Lack of fuel and medical supplies have forced dozens of health facilities to close and clinics that are open are running low on money to cover running costs, medicine, equipment and fuel,” said Bekdache.

On top of that, there is a shortage in medical staff as well as a scarcity in operative medical facilities as many of them have been destroyed or shut down due to the lack of supplies.

Many Yemenis fear becoming ill more than ever as freedom of movement has become limited due to airport closures and the impact of frontlines in many areas around Yemen.

Many people living in Yemen fear for their future and the future of their children. They are in fear of never seeing an end to the chaos and conflict and never being able to go back to an ordinary life.

Yemen has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world by many major humanitarian aid organisations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) being one of them. The ICRC has been working in over 90 countries around the world, including Syria, Egypt and Yemen. Working on promoting international humanitarian law (IHL), the ICRC also brings food and daily essentials as well as increasing healthcare sources in countries affected by violence and conflict.

Although ICRC was able to provide medical assistance, educate the public in Yemen on contaminated water and hygiene as well as providing food and other supplies, an obstacle lies in the lack of awareness around the world on what is happening in Yemen.

“The catastrophic situation needs to be highlighted further for people around the world to understand the situation, know what’s happening, and get the stories of Yemenis living in this war to the light,” said the ICRC’s Yemen-based spokeswoman.

A British-Yemeni living in London sees little hope in Yemen becoming stable again and believes that there needs to be a political solution to stop the war once and for all.

“The world needs to understand that as long as the war continues it would be impossible to halt the greatest humanitarian crisis that is now happening in Yemen. Yemen is in desperate need to be provided with a detailed plan of providing emergency aid, redevelopment and growth,” said the London-based youngster, Mohamed Murshed.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Catastrophic lives: Yemenis under conflict

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