(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Food aid 2018: the never-ending crisis

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    A landscape view of uniform refugee camp dwellings
    Panos Moumtzis/UNHCR
    Dadaab refugee camp in 1992

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    A cooperative farm storage filled with corn from an early harvest in Hamhung, North Korea
    Swithun Goodbody/FAO
    A cooperative farm storage filled with corn from an early harvest in Hamhung, North Korea

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    Andrew McConnell/UNHCR
    Hasina, 35, and her son, Shahid, 5, who is suffering from severe malnutrition, pictured in the Red Crescent Field Hospital in Kutupalong Refugee Camp

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    Mohammed Hamoud/UNHCR
    Khulood Khaled, 7, sits alone near her family's tent at the Dharawan settlement.
    A rise in man-made and protracted emergencies over the past decade means millions are at risk of starving around the globe this year
    Food aid 2018: the never-ending crisis
    Part of an in-depth series looking at the enormous scale and range of food crises around the globe heading into 2018
  • “If the war doesn’t kill us, the food prices will”

    Three-year-old Walid sits on a hospital bed, his bones and veins visible through his skin, tugging at the intravenous drip that is keeping him alive.

     

    He’s one of only five kids being treated for malnutrition at a hospital in the Yemeni city of Taiz. It’s not that more children don’t need help – both Taiz City and the wider province have been hard hit by what the UN calls the worst humanitarian crisis in the world – but treatment (or even transport to the doctor) costs money that many in Yemen no longer have.

     

    Walid was born only a few months before Yemen’s war broke out in March 2015. His father lost his job soon after. Sitting near her emaciated son, Walid’s mother Hindia says her family has struggled to buy enough food since the fighting broke out, and she was undernourished while nursing her son.

     

    “I told my husband that Walid was hungry, but he couldn’t help because the price of formula was [so] high,” she explains. “Walid has been suffering since his birth.”

     

    So while Yemen’s hunger crisis began finally making headlines in November as a Saudi Arabian-led coalition closed borders, ports, and airports in response to a Houthi rocket attack on Riyadh – warnings of famine and pictures of emaciated children like Walid made the front pages –

    Hindia knows first-hand that Yemen has been slowly crashing towards catastrophe for years.

     

    Eighteen million Yemenis in a country of more than 29 million are now classified as “food insecure”, with nearly 400,000 children in a state of “severe acute malnutrition”. And with a new battle looming, the prospects for millions of Yemenis – including young Walid – are bleak.

     

    On this occasion, Hindia eventually found a wealthy family from her village to pay for her son’s treatment, but she is really worried about his future: “Next time, I might not,” she tells IRIN. “Walid could die at any time.”

     

    Economy

     

    Yemen’s war is complicated. It has been marked by a number of shifting alliances and dramatic events, such as the 4 December death of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

     

    During his 30 years of power, Saleh often battled the Houthi rebels with whom he later joined forces to fight those loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognised (but deposed) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and a Saudi Arabian-led coalition.

     

    Devastating airstrikes by the coalition began in March 2015, with a high proportion of civilian casualties. To make it even more confusing, Saleh turned against the Houthis shortly before his death and appeared ready to talk with his opponents.

     

    As much as the alliances on the ground are labyrinthine (the above is really just the beginning), the reasons Yemenis are starving are shockingly simple. In many cases, the economic collapse means families simply don’t have enough money to buy food.

     

    For more than a year now, most public sector employees have gone unpaid. Others have lost their jobs when uprooted by violence (that’s what happened to Walid’s father), and others still work in sectors that no longer exist.

     

    Take Basher al-Thobati, a father of six in his fifties who IRIN found perusing goods at a central Taiz market. He’s a construction worker but has had little work of late. Due to the sharp rise in prices – thanks to both inflation and a run on supplies after the latest border closures  – he, like so many other would-be shoppers, was forced to turn away from the market empty-handed.

     

    Before heading home, al-Thobati explained why the food crisis gripping his country was so important. “We can live amidst the fighting. We can hide from the shells and bullets. But we can’t flee the expense,” he said. “We have to buy food at any price. If the war doesn’t kill us, the [food price increases] will.”

     

    Access

     

    In a war that until recently was a stalemate, Taiz never really had a respite from violence, with some parts of the city also suffering from a series of sieges by Houthi rebels that have cut off goods and aid.

     

    But Yemen as a whole, which imports 80-90 percent of its food, has been slowly breaking under the weight of restrictions on imports imposed by the Saudi-led coalition.

     

    The recent closures, which the coalition says were imposed to prevent arms smuggling to the Houthis from Iran, were eased in phases. The key Red Sea ports of Hodeidah and Saleef were not immediately opened for business to commercial imports of food and fuel, and the country’s other main port – Aden – is simply not equipped to store and mill grain on the scale that Yemen needs to bring it in.

    In December, the World Food Programme warned that if all ports were not allowed to work in full,  “we will have a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe of a much larger magnitude than we currently face… It will be beyond the control of the humanitarian community."

    Even with commercial food and fuel imports restarted, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) recently said “sustained imports of essential goods is critically needed, predicting that “even in the absence of additional distruptions, populations may move into catastrophe… as worst-affected households begin to exhaust their coping capacity.”  

    Now, a battle threatens Hodeidah, and not for the first time. There will likely be a fresh spate of warnings about an imminent catastrophe. These statements are repeated so often about Yemen that they can begin to sound hollow. But for families like Walid’s, the spectre of famine is all too real.

     

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    For Yemeni civilians, the deadliest killers in 2018 may not be the bombs or the bullets
    “If the war doesn’t kill us, the food prices will”
    Part of an in-depth series looking at the enormous scale and range of food crises around the globe heading into 2018
  • Shattered war economy encourages child marriage in Yemen

    It’s impossible to get hard numbers, but child marriage appears to be on the rise in Yemen: a consequence of the extreme poverty caused by nearly two years of devastating war in what was already one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.

    Parents are becoming increasingly unable to provide for their families, and interviews conducted by IRIN suggest some are opting to marry their daughters off younger than planned, reversing previous progress towards ending the practice.

    Safa’a is one of the victims. She used to look forward to weddings – asking for seconds on the sugary juice and chocolates served to children. She liked the drums and the fireworks.

    But when her day came, Safa’a was only 14 and she had only recently fled her home in the embattled Yemeni city of Taiz. There was no sweetness, no music, and no celebration.

    She walked from one room to another in a school that now serves as a camp for some of Yemen’s 3.1 million displaced, and she was married. The ninth grader’s plans to become a teacher were finished in a few footsteps.

    “Brides [are supposed to] celebrate on their wedding day,” Safa’a, now 16, recalls. “But I was crying when I had to leave my mother’s room, because I knew I couldn’t achieve my dreams. My future would be in my husband’s hands, not mine.”

    Yemen child marriage

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    Amal Mamoon/IRIN
    Safa'a was 14 when she was married in the IDP camp where she now lives
    The teenager now lives inside part of a classroom sectioned with plastic sheeting to accommodate multiple families. She spends her days doing dishes, cooking, and helping her husband’s mother.

    Safa’a doesn’t blame her 21-year-old husband – she says she loves him and is glad to have a husband “who can provide enough for me”.

    She doesn’t even blame her parents. She just wishes things were different. So does her father.

    Forty-nine-year-old Abdullah worked selling water from a truck in Taiz city before the war broke out in May 2015. He sold his rig so his family of seven could flee the violence. Once in the school camp in al-Shimayateen, about 70 kilometres from his besieged hometown, Abdullah had to rely on handouts, but they weren’t enough for regular meals.

    “I decided to marry my daughter so she could have a better life and I would have less of a [financial] responsibility,” he explains. Two months after they arrived at al-Shimayateen, Safa’a was wed.

    Back in Taiz, Abdullah had promised to enroll Safa’a in English classes. That is now impossible. He swears his two younger daughters will not follow Safa’a’s path. “I am willing to beg, but not to marry my [other] daughters before they finish their studies.”

    Non-existent data

    There are few accurate figures in Yemen at the moment – hospitals have trouble counting the dead in a decimated health system, and the economy is in such a state of collapse that there are no comprehensive numbers on unemployment.

    Statistics on child marriage, a subject so sensitive many victims and parents refused to speak to (and even threatened) IRIN, are even scarcer.

    A 2006 study put the number of girls married before 18 at 52 percent. A 2012 UN Population Fund (UNFPA) survey found that nearly 32 percent of girls in Yemen are married before they turn 18 and almost 10 percent are before the age of 15.

    These numbers suggest that early marriage – which impacts girls more than boys and is linked to shortened education, dangerous pregnancies, and domestic abuse – had been decreasing before the war.

    It was certainly on the public radar. One young girl, Nujood, briefly drew international attention to the issue when she successfully sued her husband for divorce at the age of 10.

    Several laws setting a minimum age for marriage at around 17/18 failed to pass, but child marriage was on the agenda of the National Dialogue Conference that followed the ouster of president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011. This process went nowhere as the situation in Yemen degenerated into an all-out international conflict with the start of Saudi-led airstrikes in March 2015.

    UNFPA warned as early as September 2015 that child marriage seemed to be on the rise again – its interviews with victims found the average age for child marriage among girls was now 15.

    Jamal al-Shaami, president of the Democracy School in Sana’a, an NGO that focuses on children’s issues, confirmed that he has witnessed the same pattern, then and since.

    “The economic crisis that has hit Yemen in the past two years forced many people to marry their young daughters,” he told IRIN. [The families] cannot earn a livelihood and they do not have enough education about the dangers of child marriage.”

    UNFPA’s statement said massive war-related displacement and the related economic pressure has meant more families are marrying off their young daughters as a coping mechanism, even to ensure the girls are cared for.

    Abdulatif al-Adimi, imam of the influential al-Masajad Mosque in Taiz, told IRIN he sees marriage – as long as a girl has reached puberty – as a legitimate way to endure extreme poverty. “If a father cannot provide for his daughter… I prefer that she marry than suffer with her parents,” he told IRIN.

    Yemen certainly isn’t the only country where the dangerous combination of conflict, displacement, and poverty has led to an increase in young brides – one study found that some 23 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon married before 18.

    The future

    Although the decision for many parents is tied to economic desperation, 15-year-old Nageeba isn’t so sure that’s what happened in her case.

    She was married last April at 14. She is pregnant and has just learnt how childbirth works. She is terrified.

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    Girl with turquoise headscarf
    Amal Mamoon/IRIN
    Nageeba is 15, pregnant, and terrified

    “I try to get out of the house and play with my friends to forget I’m pregnant,” she says, crying as she recalls her marriage day. Again, there was no celebration, just more tears.

    Nageeba, who lives in a rural part of Taiz Province, says her father could have taken care of her, and while she misses her siblings and her friends, she says she doesn’t miss her father who she “will not forgive”.

    The girl’s father was contacted by IRIN but said he wouldn’t talk to strangers about a personal matter.

    “The future for me and my fetus seems dark,” says Nageeba. But she is steadfast about one thing. “If my child is a girl,” she says, “I won’t let her get married before she is 20.”

    Similarly, Safa’a has limited hope for the short term, as she’s stuck doing housework in her section of al-Shimayateen camp. But the 16-year-old has plenty to say about her post-war plans.

    "Someday, I hope to become an activist for women and educate people about the dangers of child marriage,” she tells IRIN. “I want to help other children go to school and enjoy their childhoods.”

    (With additional reporting by Amal Mamoon)

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    Shattered war economy encourages child marriage in Yemen
  • Pregnancy under siege

    Despite the scale of the 16 months of conflict and the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it is still largely overlooked by the world's media and overshadowed by the headlines coming out of Aleppo, Baghdad, or even Brussels and Nice.

    Peace talks broke down over the weekend, and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition (which is trying to oust Houthi rebels from power) escalated airstrikes shortly after. Eighteen civilians were reportedly killed when a warplane struck a market northeast of the capital Sana’a on Sunday, and 21 more deaths were reported on Tuesday in airstrikes across the country. Like Syria, there are also sieges. One underreported story is how the trauma of war has caused a surge of miscarriages, still births, and neonatal deaths. For IRIN contributor Nasser al-Sakkaf, this became a deeply personal issue as he began to fear the next victim would be his pregnant wife. Here is his story:

    I’m a journalist, and for the past 16 months I’ve been writing about the war in my country, Yemen, and the siege on my city, Taiz.

    I’m also a newlywed, and I’ve always dreamt of having a child. When our doctor told me my wife was pregnant, I was so happy that I called my relatives and close friends to tell them the good news – so rare in the midst of the fighting.

    For the first five months of pregnancy, it was nothing but joy. Then my wife fainted.

    I was worried. Some 80 percent of the hospitals in Taiz have closed and there’s only one – al-Modhafar – that looks after pregnant women.

    The doctors there told us that my wife had extremely low blood pressure and needed oxygen. We were lucky there was some available – Houthi fighters surround the city (they are battling fighters who are very loosely allied with Saudi Arabia) and the main way oxygen canisters make it in is via smugglers.

    I myself had reported on the camels and donkeys that help bring these supplies in.

    Despite our luck that time, the doctors said they couldn’t guarantee my wife the care she needed in Taiz, and that dozens of premature babies had already died in the hospital because of a shortage of oxygen and electricity cuts.

    Later, the hospital manager, Fadhl al-Saberi, told me that the trauma of war has also caused more women than usual to go into premature labour.

    The hospital got solar panels in February so it has more regular power now, but “we still don’t have enough oxygen cylinders,” he said. “We advise pregnant women who may need surgery or have low blood pressure to leave Taiz city.”

    Inside Taiz I managed to get folic acid (important for the development of a healthy foetus). But with my wife’s life at risk without access to oxygen, my excitement at meeting my first child had turned to constant worry that she would not make it.

    So, like many others, we decided to leave home. We headed for al-Turbah, a rural area of Taiz Province that is now home to thousands of internally displaced people.

    The journey itself was dangerous. It took seven hours to travel the 70 kilometres on a mountain road.

    There, we found a public hospital that charges four times what they did before the war to assist delivery, but it had oxygen and could take care of my wife.

    Finally, on 14 July, I became a father. My wife gave birth to a healthy son by Ceasarean section, and both of them are well.

    I’m relieved, and a proud father. But I’m also saddened that so many families have to go through this.

    A few weeks after my son was born, I spoke to Lankani Sikurajapathy, a spokesman for the United Nations Population Fund in Sana’a.

    He told me that the UN estimates that there are 90,000 pregnant women in Taiz alone and that some 4,500 have high-risk pregnancies.

    While the UN doesn’t know exactly how many women have tried to leave Taiz to give birth, they have positioned services near "heavily conflict-affected zones of Taiz city,” Sikurajapathy told me.

    It’s not just Taiz, of course, where families are suffering. Across Yemen, “women and girls lack access to humanitarian aid, including reproductive health services, and are therefore even more at risk of unwanted pregnancies, which, in turn, can put their lives at risk,” UNFPA Country Representative Lene Christiansen said in March.

    UNFPA told me they are helping more than 200 health facilities with emergency obstetric care equipment for pregnancies with complications, and to save the lives of newborns. They are also opening mobile reproductive health clinics for pregnant women or new mothers.

    More than 6,600 Yemenis have died in this war. My wife and I would like to have more children some day. But for now, we will wait.

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    (TOP PHOTO: A child in Taiz who has been traumatized by the violent clashes and shelling. Mahyoob/UNICEF)

    Pregnancy under siege
    A journalist in Yemen becomes a father and tells his story
  • WFP warns money running out to feed Yemen

    With ongoing violence and peace talks on fragile ground, Yemen’s population faces a new threat: the World Food Programme has warned that a funding shortfall may soon force it to halt operations in the country.

    “We are on the edge,” WFP’s country director in Yemen, Purnima Kashyap, told IRIN. “By July we will have no resources available and will not be able to deliver [food] starting in August.”

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    Infographic on food security in Yemen
    Timothy Webster/IRIN

    After thirteen months of fighting between Houthi rebels and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition that has left more than 6,400 dead, this would be a major blow to a population already deep in the throes of a humanitarian crisis.

    At last count in October 2015, 14.4 million Yemenis out of a population of 26 million were considered “food insecure,” including 7.6 million “severely insecure": they don’t know where their next meal will come from.

    At the moment, Kashyap explained, WFP is only able to provide food or food vouchers to a fraction of those who need it – 3.59 million in March. If the funding runs out, “even they will be without food,” she said.

    Even if the WFP were at full funding, Kashyap said, it is “still only able to fill in the gaps.”

    Local solutions

    Some locals are stepping in to help out where they can. In Sana’a, where Saudi Arabia earlier this week threatened to send troops if peace talks fail, anonymous donors have sent a dozen refrigerators to restaurants across the city.

    They’re filled with donations from locals who have extras, leftovers from the restaurants themselves, and with purchases from customers who can pitch in extra cash.

    At al-Saeed, a restaurant with a new fridge, cashier Faisal Taher said they’re able to give some 31 people three meals a day.

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    A fridge in Sana'a, Yemen
    Nasser al-Sakkaf/IRIN
    A sign on the side of a Sana'a restaurant's fridge offers free food to the needy

    “Some people give us money and ask us to buy food [to add], others bring it from home, and the restaurant [also donates some],” he explained.

    26-year-old Madian al-Daghour is one of the beneficiaries. Originally from Taiz, he’s been living in the capital for two months while his father undergoes treatment for lung cancer.

    Life was so expensive in Sana’a that Daghour said he couldn’t afford food anymore, and was considering ending his father’s treatment and heading home.

    He doesn’t know who installed the fridge in a restaurant near the hospital  (several are near medical centres), but “they told people they can get free food from here.”

    Daghour and his father now have enough to eat, and his father can continue receiving treatment.

    Locals like Mohmmad al-Omari have taken notice. He’s got extras at home that he used to toss, but “these days I bring them to the fridge” at Al-Saeed.

    Multiple hits

    The fridges are a drop in the bucket, and Mohammed Khallid, who helped install the fridges, knows it. But he said that despite the poverty and war, “there are charitable people in Yemen.” He just wanted to help them spread the wealth.

    It’s much needed. The WFP’s Kashyap says she’s heard reports of Yemenis cutting down on meals, prioritizing within families who needs basic foodstuffs, borrowing money, and sending women and children out to beg for food.

    The organization has funding shortfalls worldwide, and the donor response to Yemen’s crisis hasn’t been particularly quick. The UN has received only 16 percent of the $1.8 billion it says it needs to cover the country’s needs for 2016, including $710.4 million for WFP alone.

    Prices of basic foodstuffs are significantly higher than they were before the fighting began in earnest last March, and Yemen has been hit by more than war – it had two unprecedented cyclones in November 2015 and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation says an infestation of locusts is on its way, forming a threat to crops in the country and its neighbours. The conflict hampered efforts to control the insects’ breeding.

    The locusts are just another worry in a country of troubles. “The fact is the number of people affected are far beyond the ability of humanitarian assistance,” Kashyap said. But if the money runs out in July, she adds, “even for the three and a half million we can help, we are in absolute dire straights.”

    Related

    Why does no one care about Yemen?

    Life gets crowded on the bottom rung in Yemen

     

    WFP warns money running out to feed Yemen
    With additional reporting by Annie Slemrod, IRIN Middle East Editor
  • Life gets crowded on the bottom rung in Yemen

    Before war ravaged Yemen, the country’s black citizens occupied the lowest rung on the societal ladder. Poorer than the poorest of other Yemenis, the group, usually called the Akhdam (servants) prefer to be referred to as Muhamasheen (marginalised ones), and work as street sweepers, rubbish collectors, and panhandlers.

    When the war began, they were among the first and hardest hit. Living in slums of tin, tarpaulin, or cardboard, they were especially vulnerable to fighting and airstrikes. And when they took flight, they lacked both the wealth to cushion the blow and the connections others had to help them find shelter.

    A year into Yemen’s conflict, more than 6,200 people have been killed – and that’s just what the country’s decimated health system can count. Another 2.5 million people have been displaced by the violence, and 320,000 children under five are at risk of severe malnutrition.

    The war, in a macabre way, has levelled the playing field. But it’s a race to the bottom. Almost all Yemenis have now been hit hard by the conflict and the humanitarian catastrophe it has set off. More and more different groups of Yemenis have joined the Muhamasheen on the bottom rung.

    “At the beginning it was a clear distinction [between the Muhamasheen and other Yemenis], but now everyone is extremely affected,” Buthaina al-Iryani, UNICEF’s head of social policy in Yemen, told IRIN.

    There are thought to be roughly one million Muhamasheen in Yemen, mostly concentrated in Sana'a and Taiz provinces. Like the vast majority of Yemenis, they speak Arabic and are Muslim. Myth says they are descendants of a defeated Ethiopian army sent into exile after their defeat by Muslim rulers 1,000 years ago, but no one really knows for sure.

    With a ceasefire announced for 10 April and a new round of peace talks set for 18 April, the plight of the Muhamasheen and other increasingly marginalised groups comes into sharper focus. How has Yemeni society been torn apart by the conflict and what sort of country will emerge when the dust finally settles?

    Growing desperation

    Cooking breakfast on an open fire, Amat al-Rahman, a member of the Muhamasheen community in Sana’a, told IRIN that the war had left her family even more destitute than before.

    “Two years ago my husband promised to build me a kitchen,” she said. But the economy has ground to a halt, and now he can’t even find enough construction work to feed the family.

    “We hardly get enough food from begging,” she said.

    While the Muhamasheen are still extremely poor, and UNICEF has targeted them for special aid, they are by no means the only Yemenis now struggling to find enough to eat.

    The World Food Programme warned this week that nearly half of Yemen’s 22 provinces are on the verge of famine, and more than 13 million people need food aid.

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    Family in a slum
    Nasser al-Sakkaf/IRIN
    With less work to go around, life has become more difficult for Sana'a's Muhamasheen

    Hisham al-Omeisy, a Sana’a based political analyst, said he’s seen Muhamasheen fighting with other Yemenis for the best begging spots on street corners. It’s a new sight in the capital, and a sign of the desperation the war has wrought.

    “It is heartbreaking when you see them fighting for a piece of bread,” al-Omeisy told IRIN.

    Forced to live together

    When the war erupted, many Muhamasheen struggled to find their feet because they didn't own property or have home villages to return to. Without the tribal networks to fall back on, they were some of the first to head to camps for the internally displaced.

    But now, UNICEF’s al-Iryani says many others have had to join them, as the tribal support networks have broken down for other groups of Yemenis too, “because of the extreme poverty.”

    In al-Shimayateen, some 70 kilometres from the devastated city of Taiz, more than 300 people – Muhamasheen and other Yemenis – are living together in a school that has been turned into a camp for IDPs. For others to live in such proximity with Muhamasheen is a rarity in Yemeni society.

    For Maher al-Awli, a 33-year-old Muhamasheen man, the classroom is actually a step up in terms of accommodation. It has solid walls and he has a roof over his head after all.

    “I used to live with my family and that of my two brothers in the same hut… but now we have a room,” he told IRIN. “So this is a better place for us.”

    They’ve used desks to divide their classroom amongst the three families, 14 people in total. The school’s stairwells and hallways have been turned into makeshift kitchens.

    But the close living quarters hasn’t necessarily changed social attitudes. Za’afaran al-Omdah, a Muhamasheen woman in her 50s, said she doesn’t interact with her neighbours.

    “Even if all of us are living in the same camp, there are clear indications of discrimination and that they hate us.”

    Indeed, several residents of the school told IRIN the Muhamasheen were “dirty.”

    But outside in the dusty schoolyard, children of all colours kicked a football around together.

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    Man sits in a school courtyard
    Nasser al-Sakkaf
    In a school-turned IDP camp, Muhamasheen and other Yemenis live together but rarely mix

    The breakdown of society

    It’s not just poverty that has wrecked tribal networks. Al-Omeisy said that political allegiances and regional tensions have also widened the divides.

    This has even happened inside his own family, he explained, as various branches have taken opposing sides in the conflict and no longer speak.

    Much of the bitterness is split along north-south lines. The internationally recognised (but deposed) president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has sided with southern separatists, anti-Houthi tribal leaders, Sunni Islamists, and a Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition.

    Hadi’s traditional fiefdom has been Aden, although the strategic southern port is contested by al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State.

    The Houthi rebels, who deposed Hadi in 2015, have their power base in Sa’adah, northern Yemen, and still control large parts of the country, including the capital Sana’a. They’re backed by the former president of 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

    The north-south division is older than the war, but these days it’s become a geographical distinction that can mean life or death.

    “If I go to a checkpoint now, the first thing a Houthi [fighter] will ask me is where are you from,” explained al-Omeisy. The same happens at checkpoints run by Hadi loyalists on the other side.

    Farea al-Muslimi, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, is also worried about the increasing geographical divisions, which he says are actually fiercer than sectarian tensions, although those are on the rise too.

    Others on the margins

    Aside from the Muhamasheen, those who lack traditional access to power – like women and children – are also among the most vulnerable.

    Al-Muslimi worried about a generation of children growing up without enough to eat, and Omeisy said: “you see women going to garbage cans in the middle of the night looking for food when no one is looking.”

    Read more

    Why does no one care about Yemen?

    When the war hits home

    Both mentioned Israel’s recent evacuation of 19 Yemeni Jews – some of the last remaining of members of the community – as an especially sad phase in the war.

    “That shook me,” al-Muslimi said. “Civilisations and nations don't die when their people die fighting. They die when their minorities and history die."

    No one blames the Jews for leaving – after all, one of the Houthis main slogans plastered across Sana’a is: “A curse upon the Jews.”

    But al-Muslimi sees it as a sign of a deeper malaise, as divisions deepen and society fractures.

    “There is little if any place left to live in peace, especially if you are a minority or already a marginalised group,” he told IRIN.

    What peace will emerge?

    Now that peace talks are imminent, there’s concern of who exactly is coming to the table, whether they’ll represent civil society, look out for the little guy, or even be any different than Yemen’s traditional power brokers.

    Given the fact that the main protagonists in the war are both old men and former or deposed presidents, al-Omeisy, for one, isn’t holding his breath.

    “Now that the divisions are even deeper and the humanitarian situation is more catastrophic, even if there are peace talks it is still the usual suspects back in play, and that won’t improve the situation for the people,” he told IRIN.

    Al-Muslimi too worries about what sort of society will emerge if and when the war ends.

    “This is a civil war, not a football game where one team wins and you go home,” he said. “Hatred, revenge, tribal rivalries: this is what is terrifying. For the first time Yemenis are not meeting to talk and chew ghat... Now they are meeting to fight each other. And there will be consequences [after the war]. It will be ugly.”

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    Life gets crowded on the bottom rung in Yemen
    Additional reporting by Annie Slemrod, IRIN Middle East Editor
  • Aid? What aid? Besieged Yemenis ask

    On Thursday night, representatives of Yemen’s warring parties announced a deal to immediately allow aid into the besieged city of Taiz. But residents say this week’s truce still hasn’t brought them the relief they so desperately need.

    Taiz has seen some of the fiercest fighting since the conflict intensified in March. Many people here started plotting their escape months ago, when rumours of a truce first began circulating.

    Fawaz Ameen, 37, told IRIN he had been waiting anxiously, ready to take his family out at the first sign of a lull.

    “When I heard about a truce… I was very glad… as [it] would open the roads that lead to my [home] village,” he said. “But the war hasn’t stopped, and we haven’t seen a truce yet.”

    A coalition of 200 aid organisations inside Taiz released a statement on Friday morning expressing their frustration that despite the apparent progress at the Switzerland peace talks, they were seeing no practical changes on the ground.

    “We want international organisations that send humanitarian aid to Taiz [and we want the international community] to send observers,” the statement said.

    Give it time

    It is too soon to really tell what impact Thursday night’s agreement will have, but some recent progress has been noted.

    Julien Harneis, Yemen country director for UNICEF, said his organisation had managed to bring water, fuel, and mobile medical clinics into Taiz in the last week. He hoped the new deal would make this aid easier to access.

    “We have been able to operate inside Taiz and throughout,” Harneis said. “However, this new access will allow this to be done in a safer way… and will allow families to access the assistance we provide.

    “We can do water trucking. We can bring in mobile medical clinics. But if parents don’t feel it is safe to move, then that assistance is not going to be used.”

    No way out

    In late November, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said 200,000 civilians in Taiz were living under a “virtual state of siege,” with only limited humanitarian assistance making it into the city, once Yemen’s third largest.

    For the most part, Houthi rebels control access in and out. Fighters loyal to the deposed but internationally recognised president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, are holed up in certain quarters. A Saudi Arabian-led coalition backs attempts to oust the Houthis from power and has lent the Hadi loyalists air support.

    Despite the latest truce, which supposedly began on Tuesday morning, clashes were ongoing. Both sides accuse the other of breaching the ceasefire, although Thursday night’s agreement was seen as a major breakthrough for the peace talks and was accompanied by a reported exchange of prisoners.

    Streets are deserted in Taiz, apart from military vehicles. The Old City, once a popular destination for dining out, has been taken over by Hadi loyalists and is routinely targeted by Houthi shelling.

    Ameen wants to leave so he can find work and enroll his children in school. Almost all of the 58 schools in Yemen that the UN says have been occupied by armed groups are here, in this one city.

    "I don't think there will be a truce in Taiz as the two warring sides insist on fighting,” he told IRIN. "We are just waiting for death in Taiz, as we have neither work nor a way to flee."

    No way in either

    When war first came to Taiz in March, many people were displaced. They are now sheltering in the much larger expanse of Taiz Province, where the UN estimates 79 percent of people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

    Adnan al-Soraimi, who fled Taiz city in June, now wants back in.

    “I left my furniture at my house… as the battles were fierce,” he told IRIN. “When I heard about the truce, I decided to enter [to recover my belongings].”

    But the main road from his neighbourhood into Taiz is said to be mined, leaving him only unpaved mountain paths that only well-equipped vehicles can make it through.

    See: Yemeni rebels ‘mining civilian areas’

    Not getting through

    After O’Brien’s statement, efforts to get more aid into the city were redoubled. The World Food Programme announced last week that it had trucked in enough provisions to last 145,000 people a month.

    But some intended recipients said it wasn’t enough, and that despite plans by aid organisations to scale up operations during the “truce”, they had seen no change in what people were actually getting.

    Ibhrahim al-Faqeeh, a supervisor at Al-Hikmah, a local charity that helps distribute for international aid organisations, told IRIN that the aid he anticipated was still stuck.

    "We have 5,000 bags of wheat, flour and rice in [southern] Ibb Province, and we were waiting for the truce to bring them to the city. But the war did not stop and the Houthis are still besieging the city, so they did not allow us to bring aid to Taiz.”

    Thursday’s deal has not brought results, he said. “The conditions in Taiz are still the same… the only thing that has changed is that the warring sides in Switzerland agreed to allow humanitarian aid to arrive in the city. But, in fact, nothing has arrived.”

    No jobs, no food… no oxygen

    The war has left many Taiz residents jobless and dependent on food aid.

    Abdul-Jabbar Al-Roaini lost his job as a tutor when war broke out and relies on aid for his basic needs. He said he was shocked at the lack of change the truce had brought to his home city.

    "Basic goods are available in the market as traders can bring them to the city on unpaved back roads. But the price is more than double and we do not have the money,” he told IRIN.

    Medical aid is in short supply too. A doctor at Al-Thawra Hospital, which is under the control of fighters loyal to Hadi, told IRIN on condition of anonymity that patients were dying due to a shortfall in oxygen supplies.

    "Many people died in hospital because of the shortage of oxygen,” he said. “We have been bringing it through the mountains, but it is difficult and we can’t bring much as it isn’t safe.”

    OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, was not immediately available for comment. Other aid groups told IRIN it was simply to soon to tell what the new deal would mean, both for their access and for the people of Taiz.

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  • Life under siege in Yemen

    For most, selling the family silver is a metaphor for bad planning. In Yemen, it is the desperate reality.

    45-year-old painter Mohammed Mosed’s has eight family members to protect as he tries to survive in the midst of one of the world’s fiercest and most underreported conflicts.

    Living in the Al-Hawta district of Lahj in southern Yemen, he has been under siege for several months.

    In late March, Yemen’s President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled the capital Sana’a, eventually reaching Saudi Arabia. A Saudi-led coalition then began a bombing campaign in Yemen in a bid to reinstate him and displace Houthi rebels who have claimed large parts of the country in alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

    The Houthis have maintained control of key parts of the country and advanced further south. There are fierce clashes in many parts of Aden, while al-Dhale, Taiz and Lahj are under Houthi siege, cut off from Sana’a and other major cities.

    For families like Mosed’s, the results are devastating. Most supermarkets and shops are closed, he said, and those still open have little on their shelves. Before the war, a month’s supplies cost YR40,000 ($186), but now the same shopping goes for YR100,000 ($465).

    "I have no work so in recent years I could not save any money to eke out a life in this war,” he told IRIN.

    And so it was that his wife was forced to sell her jewellery to keep the family alive. Many families, he added, had already run out of funds to buy food.

    Basem Al-Zawraiqi, a spokesperson for Lahj province, told IRIN a bag of wheat now costs up to YR18,000 ($84) and the population is desperate. “They will eat anything. They are eating less than their needs, maybe one loaf of bread for a whole family."

    Ongoing talks have raised hopes of a fresh two-week humanitarian pause in hostilities, following a week-long break in May. Hadi’s negotiating teams are calling for the lifting of the sieges, while the Houthis are demanding an end to the bombing that has killed over a hundred people in recent days.

    The Houthis justify the sieges as necessary to control Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has long had its base in southern Yemen.

    Mohammed Al-Boukhaiti, a member of the Houthi’s political office, told IRIN the group was “fighting Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militias in different provinces such as Aden, Taiz, Al-Dhale, and Lahj."

    Rights groups say the sieges amount to collective punishment of civilians; the Houthis counter that Saudi-led blockades on fuel and other crucial goods are just as harmful.

    Refugees also affected

    In the city of Al-Dhale, 100 kilometres to the north of Lahj, the Houthis were pushed out in late May by a mixture of pro-Hadi forces and other militias, in one of the group’s first major setbacks.

    Since then, said Waleed Al-Khateeb, media officer at the Al-Dhale Coordination Council, Houthis have blocked humanitarian aid, even during the ceasefire in May. Several humanitarian organisations tried to deliver aid to the city, he said, but it was confiscated. Houthi spokesman Al-Boukhaiti declined to comment on the allegations.

    After negotiations last week, Al-Khateeb said, the Houthis allowed 2,000 food parcels to enter the city. But he claimed this was only “half of the parcels they seized.”

    The city has not been as severely cut off as others, so the price of goods has not risen as high, Al-Khateeb said. Partly this is because businessmen from the city working in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have been able to use local charities to buy goods and distribute them to residents.

    But Majed Ali, a poor resident of the city, said the rich were increasing shortages by buying up goods in shops.

    "I am jobless right now so I don’t have money to buy lots of food to save it. Though the rich men know that we are under siege and we depend on the local market, they are trying to kill us by saving large quantities of food." he added to IRIN.

    He said that while prices had not risen as much as elsewhere, there were long queues in shops.

    Also affected by the sieges are thousands of refugees, mostly from Somalia, living in the south. Many have fled large cities to the Kharaz camp in Lahj.

    This hosts over 20,000 refugees, of whom at least 2,000 arrived in recent weeks, according to Mogib Hassan Abdullah, spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR.

    Abdullah said there were severe limitations on the agency’s access to the camp, even if last month it was able to deliver medical and health supplies from Aden by boat.

    "However, transporting medicines, food and fuel has been extremely challenging and in some cases fraught with security risks. Last week, after several attempts, a consignment of food was delivered to the camp," Abdullah added.

    In Aden, where fierce fighting is ongoing, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) last week began distributing food across the front lines. The consignment of more than 160 tonnes will cover the emergency needs of 17,500 people, the ICRC said.

    "We cannot say that this step will solve the whole problem in Aden, rather it is a first step for the international organisations to break the siege," said Essam Al-Shaeri, the head of the Aden-Based Sah Foundation for Defending Rights and Freedom.

    Many people have been prevented from leaving the city by the Houthis, Al-Shaeri added.

     

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  • Ice men of Taiz are last ones standing

    Nawar al-Kaboudi is one of the few civilians who dares to hang about for long on the streets of Taiz nowadays. Standing under the scorching midday sun, the 42-year-old sells ice to people so hot and desperate they often end up drinking it.

    In late March, pro-Iranian Houthi rebels seized large parts of Taiz, Yemen’s third city, which lies 250 kilometres south of the capital Sana’a, en route to the strategically located southern port of Aden.

    Forces loyal to deposed president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi put up fierce resistance and months of street battles began. Saudi Arabian-led airstrikes began pounding Houthi positions mid-April while ongoing battles rage on the ground between the rebels and pro-Hadi forces.

    As the fighting spread throughout the city, tens of thousands of residents fled to the nearby countryside, some of the more than one million Yemenis displaced across the country.

    Taiz has witnessed some of the most intense fighting in Yemen’s three-month conflict and still sees regular clashes and civilian fatalities. It had a pre-war population of more than 600,000, but no one knows how many remain.

    Where is everyone?

    Gaining rare access, IRIN found a ghost town. Schools and the city’s university remained shut. Those who did venture from their homes only did so to stock up on essential goods.

    The streets were largely deserted. Deserted that is, except for men like Kaboudi.

    Before the war, he ran a successful shop – making nearly $20 a day, a decent salary in Yemen. But that shop is located in al-Masbah, an area of Taiz that is now a major battle zone.

    Kaboudi only makes half his old wage selling ice, but, as he points out, "this is better than nothing.”

    "I have no experience selling ice, but I have a wife and four daughters [so I have to] eke out an existence. I couldn’t get any work, so finally I decided to sell ice, as people have become in critical need of it in the hot weather," he told IRIN.

    Lack of basic services

    Keeping cool in Taiz in sweltering conditions is a challenge. The temperature has risen to 37 degrees in recent days and much of the city has no electricity.

    There is also a chronic shortage of fuel – caused in large part by a Saudi-Arabian-led naval blockade. This, in turn, has led to desperate water shortages as the diesel-fuelled pumps lie idle.

    Cases of dengue, diarrhoea and other water-related diseases have spiked, while across the country, malnutrition cases have increased by 150 percent as prices of wheat and other staples have doubled.

    Every morning, Kaboudi leaves his house with his ice container and walks to al-Tahrir street in the centre of Taiz. There, he stands in a queue waiting for men with trucks selling large slabs of ice.

    Using a knife, he breaks the ice down into smaller chunks, which he can sell on to customers on the street for a small profit. Kaboudi charges YR100 ($0.5) for one piece or YR300 ($1.5) for a small bag.

    "[Some of] this ice is used to keep the fish fresh, but the demand for cold water and ice in the city is forcing people to use it as drinking water," Kaboudi admitted.

    This is far from ideal from a health and hygiene perspective as the ice is passed between dirty hands as it is sold without a container.

    The conflict does not afford residents the luxury of worrying too much about hygiene.

    "Even if this water isn’t very clean… they will drink it as long as they don’t think it will harm them,” Naif Noradeen, a social worker based in Taiz, told IRIN.

    War economy

    City resident Ashraf al-Zuraiqi said he buys the ice every day, but tries not to drink it as others do.

    "I put clean water inside a bottle in a small container and I put the ice pieces around it,” he told IRIN. “This way I can get cold and clean water, but I do not drink the melted ice and I do not allow my children to drink it.”

    Several of the ice-sellers IRIN spoke to had other jobs before the crisis. Local journalist Fareed al-Homaid explained that a “war economy” had taken hold of the city.

    "The civil war in Taiz killed dozens of occupations, but it also created new occupations, such as selling ice, selling solar energy plates and charging phones,” Homaid told IRIN.

    He gave the example of an accountant friend of his who had been forced to shut down his business but had bought a generator and was now charging people’s mobile phones for a half-dollar fee.

    The generator cost $205, but his friend makes about $14 a day running the service out to dozens of users, meaning he’s probably bringing in a tidy profit by now.

     

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