Rafi is 18 months old, he lies listless on a bed in the only functioning hospital in the city of Abyan in Yemen. The little boy is severely malnourished and has been ill with diarrhoea for a month. His young mother fears she will not be able to keep him alive very much longer. She has already lost two sons and is desperate not to lose her third child, but with another one on the way, she knows she cannot afford to feed both. These are the impossible choices starving Yemenis are being forced to make!
The people of Yemen are facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. More than 14 million are facing starvation, and 85,000 children may have already died from extreme hunger since the war began in 2015. With key ports closed or blockaded, vital food, medicine and humanitarian aid is unable to reach ordinary people, who are now in desperate need. Aid workers are reporting that parents are being forced to feed their children contaminated food and water, or nothing at all.
The conflict, now entering its fourth year, has forced millions of people to flee their homes. Many describe running through the night to escape bombings with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Most people head to ‘safer’ coastal towns and the southern port city of Aden where there is some hope of accessing food supplies. Families are setting up makeshift homes wherever they can find available land – in the desert, on garbage dumps and in abandoned buildings.
Tallabah Ali, a widow who fled bombing in the darkness of night, now lives with her family in a flimsy tent in the middle of a graveyard in Taiz, the only space available to them. Despite failing eyesight and difficulty walking, she goes out begging for food every day.
“It’s not easy to lose your dignity and resort to begging” she said, “but if I don’t, my family will die from hunger.” “I feel ashamed to say that begging has become our main source of income.”
Tallabah describes the chaos of the night she fled her home “we were surrounded in all directions…the bullets were chasing us” she said. But today she’d rather return home than live as a beggar: “It was the worse day of my life when I left my house… but life under battles is better than hunger and suffering in this camp. I hope to return to my home as soon as possible”. She intends to try once the road to her village has reopened.
Her thoughts are echoed by Habiba, Rafi’s mother: “The worst decision we ever made in our life was leaving home. There we would be killed only once; here we are dying a hundred times,” she said.
While the situation is still desperate for ordinary people like Tallabah and Habiba, December’s ceasefire, brokered in the critical port city of Hodeida, is largely holding. And there is hope internationally that promises to restore vital imports into the country will be kept, but the people of Yemen are growing frustrated.
A few vessels are getting into Hodeida port says Islamic Relief’s spokesperson, Salem Jaffer Baobaid, but there is still very little food in the markets. Whatever food there is, is very expensive – the price of wheat flour has trebled. He said:
“When the ceasefire first came into action a few weeks ago and the military operations stopped, people felt things would get better, but weeks later and little has changed. It is still the same desperate situation.”
One of the biggest challenges for aid workers is security. “No one can guarantee your safety when delivering relief” continued Salem. “And the clearance process for accessing aid is very complicated and often delayed.”
While circumstances are challenging, aid workers are reaching people. Islamic Relief is one of several international agencies operating in the country, delivering food, shelter materials and health care. CARE International is distributing cash vouchers so that desperate families can buy what they most need. Both are part of the group of aid agencies urging the British public not to forget Yemeni families on the brink of starvation.
They are also calling on all parties of the conflict to put the needs of the Yemeni people first before it is too late.