The Latest News from Syria Relief

By Adams Kelwick

The healthcare system in Yemen has collapsed due to an epidemic, but it isn’t COVID-19 that has caused it – it’s child starvation. Everywhere I go, every family I speak to, their concern isn’t masks, or social distancing, or washing their hands. Their concern is “I need food or my children will starve to death.”

I've been visiting Yemen at least annually since 2000. I’m half-Yemeni, so I originally started coming here because it is a part of me. However, I’ve long since stopped coming as a Yemeni and now I come only as an aid worker because every time I come here, the humanitarian situation has become worse and worse and now, twenty years later. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it. It breaks my heart.

I’m working here for the NGO Syria Relief, who’s humanitarian aid operation in war-torn Syria is been second-to-none and their expertise on providing life-saving aid in a warzone is desperately needed here in Yemen also.

There are many, many differences between the situation here in Yemen and the situation in Syria. Whilst poverty has sky-rocketed in Syria since the start of the conflict, prior to its start it was a middle-income country. Yemen was ravaged by poverty long before the civil war.

On this visit, I was in the country a matter of hours when I saw the first of many cases of child malnutrition. I was in a city called al-Dhalea, which is currently a front-line governorate where al-Houthi forces regularly clash with Southern separatist fighters. My colleague Abdulqadir Muhammad from the Yemeni Red Crescent told me of a mother and a child admitted to hospital just yesterday. Abdulqadir explained "The reason so many children are suffering from malnutrition is because their mothers are starving also, they can't afford any food and their bodies are so weak that they can't produce any milk to breastfeed their children".

The humanitarian instinct in me kicked in, I wanted to meet this mother and her child. I wanted to help. We set off and whilst we were driving there, Abdulqadir received a call from another local hospital, "They've just made an emergency request for a hundred body bags and burial shrouds." I asked why so many I was told it's a mix of starvation, fighting and “a few Coronavirus cases here and there”. My heart sunk. For the people of Yemen, Coronavirus was the least of their worries, they just want to feed their children. The UN reported last month that in Southern Yemen alone there is over half a million cases of children under the age of five suffering from acute malnutrition.

This sentiment was confirmed when I visited a former school which was bombed in an air strike and now houses 55 displaced families. When I asked Jaber, who was the representative for the displaced families, why nobody was wearing a mask or seemed to be bothered about Coronavirus he replied "Why should we be bothered about Coronavirus when we don't have any food to eat nor water to drink?"

When I visited the hard-hit port city of al-Hodeida, I saw even more poverty and starvation. People here have been in poverty long before the escalation of the conflict five years ago, but now the situation was worse than it's ever been. For those who haven't left their homes and fled to a different part of Yemen there is little hope of any proper health care and most people don't know where their next meal is coming from.

The scenes in al-Sabeen women and children's hospital in Sanaa were apocalyptic. Almost every bed and every ward was occupied by a malnourished child. Their tiny skeletons visible through their skin. It will haunt me forever.

Beyond the bleeps of the ICU units, Dr Najla al-Sonboli, a graduate of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, explained to me that funding the treatment for these children was very difficult as much of the support from international organisations had stopped. She explained that at the moment much of the treatment and transport to and from the hospital for the staff is covered by a group of ladies in Liverpool who she knows who regularly sell cakes, handicrafts and do local fundraisers.

Despite the terrible conditions in the al-Sabaeen hospital, perversely, these families were the luck ones as they were received some healthcare. Half of health centres in Yemen are currently closed and the other half are severely under-equipped.

One of the cases which affected me the most was that of Ghasoon, a 19-year-old with womb cancer. We met her and her father when distributing emergency food in al-Hodeida, her father invited us to their home which was little more than a hut made of sticks. Ghasoon told us that her family used to live in a nice house and they were a family of fishermen and had a nice life, then the conflict came to their area and they had to flee. "We don't have any money for the treatment of my cancer" she said with tears in her eyes. "We only just had enough to get checked and diagnosed. I just want the war to stop so I can go back to our home."

This is the sentiment of the almost everyone I've met here, they aren't bothered about politics, they just want the conflict to end and right now, as Yemen starves, they just want to be able to put food on their families' tables.

Each of the hundreds of thousands of cases of children on the brink of dying due to starvation is a tragedy, but do you know what else is a tragedy? How preventable this all is. Imagine if the world governments stopped sending hundreds of £ billions worth of weapons to Yemen, used to increase the suffering and elongate the war, and sent food instead. Since the civil war began in 2014, the UK government has licensed at least £5.3 billion’s worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, most of it is thought to be used in Yemen. Our government needs to take a lesson from NGOs like Syria Relief are doing and send Yemen food, not weapons.

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