Salem Jaffer Baobaid – Hodeidah project coordinator for Islamic Relief
For the last few nights, gunfire has woken me up around midnight and raged on until dawn. Being from Yemen, where war has gone on for 44 months, and living in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, where an offensive has been heading for more weeks than I care to remember, you’d think I’d be used to it. But lately the fighting is edging closer to the city centre, and I can hear it. Few people sleep through the night, and I can see the exhaustion and anxiety on my neighbours’ faces.
I’ve been an aid worker in Hodeidah for more than two years, and in that time the city has changed so much it’s almost unrecognisable. When I first moved here from Hadhramaut province, which is east of Hodeidah, the city felt alive, despite the war. The shops, restaurants, and markets were full. The oppressive summer heat meant that families filled the streets late into the evening.
I even brought my four children with me, and we set about making a home. It was just the five of us, because my wife died shortly before we moved – she had an autoimmune liver disease and the treatment she needed wasn’t available in Yemen. I think the stress of the war made her condition worse.
Now Hodeidah feels half empty, and since the airstrikes, shelling, and shooting is getting worse at night (or at least it feels that way), as evening approaches the city really clears out. By 6pm, there are a few people on the streets. By 7, you can’t see a soul. Everyone is hiding in their homes, and lately many people don’t leave at all.
It’s even emptier for me. When, at the start of this year, it became clear that Hodeidah would be the next front line of this war, I sent my kids to stay with their grandmother in Sana’a. My wife’s death made it an even harder decision, and I worry about them wherever they are. But my youngest is just five years old and at least doesn’t hear the same bullets I do.
I was lucky to get my kids out. Far too many families never had the luxury of leaving, and even some of those who left have come back, either because they ran out of money or found the conditions in makeshift camps so miserable that they would rather live near the front lines.
The UN says Yemen is on the brink of famine, and I’ve seen what that looks like first-hand. As people grow increasingly desperate, my job has become harder, but it also feels more urgent.
As Islamic Relief’s project coordinator for Hodeidah province, it’s my responsibility to make sure food gets to 110,000 households every month – our food packs include things most people can no longer find or afford, like wheat, rice, oil, sugar, and tinned fish. We also deliver specialised nutritional support to malnourished new and expectant mothers, who might otherwise struggle to breastfeed their babies.
There is not much electricity here – those homes that do have it buy fuel from local businessmen who run generators for a profit. Staples we depend on like rice, cooking oil, and many vegetables became more expensive. Now they’re almost impossible to find, as more and more shops close their doors.
At first shop-owners kept the city going by giving people what they needed on credit, but as Yemen’s currency has collapsed in the past few months, they’ve started having to take out credit themselves. It’s become more and more expensive to import basic supplies like food, and prices have soared. Some people in Hodeidah have sold their homes to feed their families.
But there is much more to do besides the immediate food needs. I also make sure our sanitation projects, which are critical in the fight against cholera and other deadly diseases, keep operating, and I negotiate cash transfer programmes with vendors to keep the anaemic economy going.
The days are long, the dangers many, and the obstacles to aid workers’ jobs in Hodeidah never seem to end. There is endless negotiating with the UN, local partners, communities, and authorities on various sides of the war. People are relying on us to deliver aid effectively and on time.
Now that the battle for the city I call home is getting closer, at night, when I hear the gunfire again and can’t sleep, I also worry about how I can keep my staff and the people we help safe. I obsess over every detail, but this war has been merciless and unpredictable, and the truth is that no amount of planning can fully guard against the often indiscriminate violence.
I know families are struggling to get by on the help we provide; they tell me our food packs sometimes don’t last more than two weeks anymore because they are sharing rations with neighbours and loved-ones. Their sallow skin and sunken eyes – both signs of malnutrition – are clear indications that the people of Hodeidah and Yemen can’t take much more.
They ask us to bring more food. But no matter what we do, aid organisations are not designed or equipped to feed an entire nation. Without an end to this war, many more innocent people will die – be it from hunger, like the people I help; from disease, like my wife; or from the bombs and bullets that are edging ever closer to me.
This article was first published in Irin on 8 November 2018