This month, for the first time ever, I have been able to leave my house for work without worrying if I will ever see my son again.
Yemen has been devastated by seven years of war. As an aid worker who lives and works in Taiz, a mostly besieged city in the southwest of Yemen, I’ve become used to death and fear. My son, now three years old, was born into this conflict; he has never known anything other than the constant sounds of shelling.
So you can imagine the relief and hope I felt when a two-month truce was announced, starting in April with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
We truly need this break. The humanitarian situation here in Taiz is horrific; it’s even worse than what you see in the news.
While other parts of the country have had some occasional relief from the violence and daily hardships the war has caused, here in Taiz we have seen almost continuous indiscriminate bombing.
To add to that, around two million people live in parts of Taiz encircled by the warring parties, with Houthi rebels (officially called Ansar Allah) controlling most of the city from the north, and various forces allied with Yemen’s government in the rest.
As a result, the province’s main roads are almost impassable, leading to critical shortages of food and medicine. It’s so hard to get in – and out – that the prices of basics like milk and bread have shot up over the past few years. At the same time, our money is worth less.
A month in, the truce has changed some things. In other parts of Yemen, there has been less fighting and more access for aid groups. But in Taiz, it has mostly been disappointing.
There are still clashes here and, while the shelling has mostly stopped, some bombs continue to hit residential neighbourhoods. And the part of the ceasefire people in Taiz are all hoping and praying for is the one element of the agreement between warring parties you don’t hear about (maybe because previous attempts to even talk about this part of the conflict have failed before): planned negotiations to open our roads, and end the siege.
Closed roads and darkness
The war has destroyed hospitals, schools, and entire neighbourhoods. The hospitals that do remain open are overwhelmed. Patients who need urgent care must be sent elsewhere.
That on its own can be a death sentence. Before the war, it only took 10 minutes to drive to the eastern part of Taiz and get on the way to the southern city of Aden, which has functioning hospitals. Now it takes six hours on dangerous, narrow mountain paths. Road accidents are common.
Many patients are sent north to Sana’a, a journey that used to take five hours and now takes 15. I’ve had to make this trip twice. The first was when my son was only one. He is autistic, but I didn’t know that then. I just knew he wasn’t interacting with me, and we had to take our chances on the winding roads.
The second time, I accompanied my sister to Sana’a because her son was sick. It was a difficult trip, made harder by the emotional blow of my son’s shock at seeing things like streetlights. He kept playing with the fridge in our hotel, telling me we had a “cold box with lights in it”. He had never seen a functioning fridge before, because in most of Taiz we don’t have enough electricity to keep appliances like refrigerators running at home.
That means the nights here are long and dark. The main government electricity supplier shut down after the war began. A private company took over, but their prices are so high that few people can afford to use much. Most people rely on basic solar-powered generators that can hardly light up a lamp.
Malnutrition and determination
Children have suffered the most from the conflict. At Islamic Relief, where I work, we support around 2,000 children in Taiz who have lost one or both parents. My job involves finding out what they need and staying in touch with them as we do our best to help them with schooling, housing, and medical care.
People are the worst off in the rural parts of Taiz province, outside the city. This Ramadan, Islamic Relief planned to bring food to 5,000 families, but our supplier wasn’t able to deliver the food because of the road blockages.
Some families have had to abandon their homes because they were destroyed or came under fire, and they are now living in caves in the mountains outside Taiz. Malnutrition and poverty are common there, even more than in the city, where the average salary of a (rarely paid) civil servant is the equivalent of $50. It’s nearly impossible to feed an entire family on that, and we know of fathers who have committed suicide because they were unable to support their families.
Some people don’t even see the doctor at all when they get sick; instead, they rely on herbs and alternative medicine. It’s all they can afford.
I feel like the war has pushed us back centuries. I recently drove to a village outside of the city, and the children there were shocked to see a car. It was the first time they had seen one, they told me.
I had hoped the truce would change things, but I still haven’t been able to see family members who live across blocked roads, on the other side of the city. Food is still so expensive.
My heart aches for the children of Taiz, including my own. There is nowhere here that serves children with special needs, so my son isn’t learning any new skills. I’m concerned about his future, but there’s nothing I can do.
All of our kids have been robbed of a normal and happy childhood. They are traumatised, scared, and live in terrible conditions.
Yet every morning I see children walking many miles to get to school. They look tired and thin – most of them are surviving on just one meal a day – but they are determined to keep going to school.
This is why the truce must hold and be extended beyond the initial two months. The roads in and around Taiz must finally be reopened. Truly implementing the ceasefire, in all parts of Yemen, is a matter of life and death for people here, and it really will determine the future of an entire generation.