Yemen: descending into despair.

Author:Steil, Jennifer


SANA'A -- It's 2009. Dust from the recent bombings still hangs in the warm air of Sa'dah, a city 113 miles north of Yemen's capital, just shy of the frontier with Saudi Arabia and the vast desert known as the Empty Quarter. A five-year-old girl stands crying in the street. Hungry, thirsty, and alone, she has been wandering in the ruins of her home, searching for her mother, father, or any other family members, all of whom have vanished in the devastating battles between the Houthi Shiite rebels and the government. She finds no one.

At last, someone finds her. An old woman stops to help the weeping child but is unable to discover who she is. The traumatized girl cannot give her own name or the name of anyone in her family.

"I will be your grandmother," the woman, Mariam Hadi Ali, says to the girl. She calls her Hadiya, which means "gift" in Arabic. Together, the two flee Sa'dah, seeking refuge from the bitter conflict.

They land in nearby Amran, where UNICEF has set up a small transit camp. By then Hadiya is acutely malnourished and requires two months of treatment with Plumpy'nut, a peanut-based, high-calorie paste created especially for famine victims.

She has stabilized nutritionally. But her other afflictions will be slower to heal. Hadiya, now seven, is psychologically scarred, says Rajia Sharhan, a Yemeni pediatrician and nutrition officer with UNICEF Yemen. While she has begun to play a little bit in the camp, she hardly speaks and usually hides behind her new grandmother. She has never attended school. She remembers nothing of her past and cannot return home.

Yemeni children have more to fear than starvation. Ongoing armed conflicts in many parts of the country terrorize their minds. Violence traumatizes everyone, but it's far worse for children, says Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF's representative in Yemen. Yemenis are growing up with bullets flying around their heads. It is not uncommon to see a child playing with the unexploded ammunition that litters the streets. Even refugees who do still have homes often cannot return. Landmines riddle the Sa'dah region, and many who have tried to return home have lost limbs in the process.

Of the more than 300,000 who have fled the conflict, most still live in camps. Among these is a family of 14 who in September 2009 fled Sa'dah, the capital of the northernmost province, with only what they could carry. Mohammed al-Mogny, his two wives, their nine children under the age of five, and a set of grandparents left their cows, sheep, and chickens behind and walked for two and a half days before settling in a deserted area called al-Mazraq. Within a month, some 10,000 others had followed them there, gathering where they found familiar faces. By the time they arrived in al-Mazraq, all nine children were suffering from varying degrees of starvation. The seven-month-old twin boys, Saleh and Ali, were close to death. The grandmother, Haleema Saleh, was looking after all nine children, as the mothers were busy fetching wood and water and doing the cooking. It was she who got them treatment from UNICEE The boys were hospitalized and the rest of the children treated with Plumpy'nut until they recovered.

These are the lucky few. Those unable to find their way to the few functioning refugee camps are not faring as well. Often, they live far from treatment centers and cannot afford to travel. Recent fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices have made car travel all but impossible. A journey that cost $2.50 a year ago now costs $40, so parents often wait until their children are in crisis before seeking help. Fuel shortages also mean that even the camps cannot get water, as it must be transported in trucks or pumped from the ground using gasoline-powered pumps.


The problem is about to get much worse--reaching famine proportions on a biblical scale. Just across the Gulf of Aden, the famine in Somalia has captured the world's attention with the likes of Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, and Madonna all campaigning for relief. Meanwhile, the looming humanitarian disaster in Yemen, a country with more than twice the population, has been largely ignored. The political upheaval that began with anti-government protests around the country in January, combined with violent conflicts in many parts of the country, are driving tens of thousands from their homes. These new floods of internally displaced are now straining communities that were already struggling. In the south, more than 60,000 have been displaced by recent conflicts in Abyan. Many areas remain inaccessible to aid organizations because of running battles. In the strategic southern city of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan, just inland from the Gulf of Aden, Islamic militants have been battling security forces on a daily basis.

Internal displacement is just one of the myriad crises facing a Yemen teetering on the brink of catastrophe that could result in widespread starvation, the collapse of the economy, runaway disease epidemics, and massive internal displacement of the most vulnerable Yemenis--a recipe for instability and further conflict. Hundreds of thousands of protesters, frustrated with a government they feel has ignored their needs for too long, have gone into the streets and squares, demanding an end to the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who, they charge, has been largely responsible for pushing the country to the edge of this humanitarian disaster.

Conflicts between youthful protestors and government security forces lead repeatedly to bloodshed. But while the protesters face real danger, a far greater threat to the Yemeni people is playing out across the nation. Yemen's economy is in freefall. Over-reliance on oil revenues (which make up more than 70 percent of state income), corruption, a lack of coherent economic policy, and President Saleh's web of patronage are all taking a steep toll. An attack in March on an oil pipeline in Ma'rib, 150 miles east of the capital, halved the country's oil exports and left it with severe fuel and foreign exchange shortages. The weakened government took months to reach a deal with the tribe responsible to arrange for the repairs.

As a result, lines of cars waiting at filling stations extend for miles. Many wait weeks for a tank of gas. When fuel arrives, fighting often follows. "I always know there is fuel when I hear shooting," a taxi driver told activist Kawkab al-Thaibani one morning. The fuel shortage contributes to Yemen's already critical water shortage. Most of Yemen's water comes from aquifers deep below ground, which means fuel is required to pump it to the surface. In Sana'a, 60 percent of water arrives in tankers. So when trucks can't get fuel, Sana'anis can't get water. Al-Thaibani's home often is without water for weeks. When water is available, its price has...

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