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Yemenis fight for survival as famine looms

Economic collapse, hunger and conflict mean civilians are struggling just to stay alive

Ahmed al-Basha
A health worker measures a child to assess malnutrition in Yemen.

It has been almost two years since Yemen’s third-largest city had running water or electricity. Worn down by relentless shelling and street-to-street fighting, Taiz is heading into its third year of conflict. But while the seemingly unending hostilities drag on, civilians, every day, face an ever more deadly fight: a battle against starvation.

Taiz governorate is one of the worst affected areas in a country facing the largest food insecurity emergency in the world. Deemed “one step from famine” by the UN, its hospitals and medical centres are seeing a steep increase in cases of severe acute malnutrition, known as SAM, the most critical classification of undernourishment.

A combination of issues – restricted access to food and medical care because of locally imposed sieges; spiralling costs of food and water; an increasing reliance on wages from unpaid state employees – has created an immense challenge to daily survival in Taiz, which has seen some of the heaviest and most sustained fighting, in a country wracked by war.

Taiz and Yemen

Taiz is one of two governorates (out of 22) already facing emergency levels of food insecurity. But the UN said last week that the whole of Yemen faces a credible risk of famine in the next six months.

It is largely a man-made crisis, brought about by years of war.

The armed conflict began in 2014, when the Houthis – a Zaydi Shia revivalist movement from northern Yemen – joined forces with military units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted in 2012 after three decades in power. The alliance led to a Houthi takeover of the capital, Sana’a, in September 2014.

Five months later, the joint forces pushed on into the southern city of Aden, using the air force to bomb the city and forcing president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia hit back in March 2015, launching a military campaign to counter the advance, with the backing of a regional coalition.

The central city of Taiz began its own battle against Houthi-Saleh forces that April. Local politics and the conflicting interests of key coalition partners soon led to a military quagmire, as the city was placed under siege by the Houthis.

With infighting amongst several different groups on the anti-Houthi side, the perpetual struggle for control of Taiz has become the longest-running battle of Yemen’s civil war. Meanwhile, after more than a year of stalemate on multiple other fronts of the ground conflict, the Saudi-led coalition last month turned its focus to the western coast of Taiz governorate.

In an apparent push towards the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah – a key food supply route for the densely populated northern region – coalition forces seized the Red Sea town of Mocha earlier this month. This new wave of violence prompted a plea last week from the UN’s most senior official for Yemen. “I am deeply concerned with the escalation of conflict and militarisation of Yemen’s western coast,” said Jamie McGoldrick in a statement. “It is coming at a great cost to civilians… aggravating an already terrible humanitarian situation.”

The case of Uniquba

In four therapeutic feeding centres visited by IRIN in Taiz governorate, records show the number of children being treated for SAM has more than doubled compared to pre-war figures. Most of those being admitted for treatment hail from al-Sabir mountain, outside the city.

In Uniquba, one of the remote villages of al-Sabir with a population number not officially recorded, residents are clearly struggling to cope.

Primary breadwinners here have either lost their jobs because of the conflict or are awaiting government salaries that have gone unpaid for six months or more. Roads blocked for months by Houthi forces, in addition to the new wave of violence, have all contributed to driving up food and water prices.

The villagers of Uniquba, no longer able to afford water truck deliveries – prices trebled as the Houthi-Saleh siege of Taiz city took hold in 2016 – now have a rota system for families at their drying spring. Three houses are allocated six hours at a time to fill their yellow plastic water cans before it’s the next trio’s turn.

At this time of year, with the water table near to its lowest point, it takes between two and three hours to fill a 20-litre container. The roster runs through the night, with women and children sitting under the trees at the spring 24 hours a day collecting precious drips of water.

Unable to irrigate their terraced fields, their subsistence living has ground to a halt as the entire village waits expectantly for spring rains to arrive when they can plant crops that will not be ready for harvest before October.

Until then, many are living on one meal a day. They depend on the salaries of extended family members in far-away cities where regular protests are taking place demanding unpaid wages.

Protests and a paralysed Central Bank

Yuslim Mohammed Haytham, a military veteran of three wars in Yemen, is one of scores of soldiers staging weekly protests by blocking roads at a major junction in the southern city of Aden, the current base for the internationally recognised (but still largely exiled) government of president Hadi.

In front of burning tyres, while leaning on his crutches, the 45-year-old amputee complained of not being paid since the middle of last year. Even those who have received salaries say the payment only covered one of many months of missing wages.

Soldiers, medical staff and those working in government institutions are among some of the state employees across Yemen who have gone without pay since August 2016. With the war forcing private companies out of businesses, wages earned by civil servants and previously used to support one, or at the most two, families are now being stretched to meet the needs of 20 or more extended family members.

Adding to the economic strain in Uniquba, greater Taiz, and Yemen as a whole, is the relocation last September of the Central Bank of Yemen (CBY) to Aden.

The payment of most government salaries was frozen prior to the move (when the CBY was still under control of the Houthis in Sana’a), but as a consequence of the ill-prepared relocation the CBY is now unable to offer its usual lower exchange rate for traders importing food into the country.

The removal of what was in effect a government subsidy for essential imports – for which Yemen relies on for 90 percent of its food – has resulted in escalating prices of wheat and rice. Although the CBY plans to renew the guaranteed exchange rate once it is fully functioning, which is expected to be sometime in April, the move has stalled already delayed foodstuffs being brought into the country.

Imports into the port of Hodeidah have slowed drastically over the course of the war due to restrictions imposed on vessels by the Saudi-led coalition in addition to damage to port facilities as a result of the conflict. Hodeidah is said to be ‘functioning at minimal capacity’ with the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) expecting the country’s stocks of wheat and sugar to run out by the end of April.

An increasingly crucial food and goods pipeline for northern Yemen are now the undocumented yet bustling overland routes, particularly through neighbouring Oman. However, these long-haul methods further contribute to rising prices. The latest figures from WFP show the average price of flour was 32 percent higher in January compared to pre-war levels after the cost of essential food items increased in the first month of 2017 following four months of stability.

Remittances and a healthcare system on its knees

Ahmed al-Basha/IRIN
30-year-old Samira Ahmed says she can only buy half the food she could before the war.

With no income, families in Uniquba are now entirely reliant on remittances from Yemen’s urban centres. “We can only buy half the food we could before [the war],” said 30-year-old Samira Ahmed, sitting next to the spring in a traditional wide-brimmed straw hat, her face tinged orange by turmeric – a traditional form of sun protection.

Healthcare is also an unaffordable luxury for the rural population. No one can pay the 5,000 YR (around $15) charge for the taxi ride to the asphalt road a few miles down the mountain track, putting access to medical care out of reach for thousands of families living beyond the scope of aid agencies in remote highland villages.

To add to the daily burden, the population of Uniquba has grown as a result of the conflict. Fathers and sons previously working in cities returned to their village homes as the violence escalated, businesses closed and many lost their jobs. The village has also become a local safe-haven for those displaced from areas closer to the front line.

Hazaa Hassan Zayid has 10 children and no job after his work as a builder petered out. “Now I rely on my brother,” he said. “He has three of his own children, but I need him so we can eat and also to pay the rent for the land, so we can farm.”

Many of Uniquba’s villagers returned from Taiz city, where, although a year-long siege has eased, a continuing partial Houthi-imposed blockade means a less than 15 minute journey across the east of the city now takes five hours. Supply trucks trying to reach civilians on the southern side of Taiz are forced to navigate a long stretch of dry riverbed – a route that will be cut off when the rains come in April.

Inside the enclave, even districts “liberated” from Houthi rebels remain ghostly quiet; notices daubed on doors of houses and walls warn of booby-traps and mines. Too afraid to return, residents have abandoned their homes indefinitely, haunted by stories of returnees blown up when they opened their front door, their corpses found days later.

Closer to the front lines, tarpaulins stretch across narrow streets – to block the view of Houthi gunmen – accompanied by signs alerting any brave passers-by to the presence of snipers, waiting to pick off their next victim.  Children collecting water, men carrying groceries – none are safe from the hidden predators lingering in buildings a few metres away.

Iona Craig/IRIN
A man fixes a solar panel in front of a blue tarpaulin, used to block the view of Houthi snipers, strapped between bullet-ridden buildings in Taiz.

The Médecins Sans Frontières-supported Yemeni Swedish Hospital was once Taiz's primary care facility for children. But the paediatric hospital was decimated after the Houthi-Saleh forces took up residence inside the building early in the conflict. With famine looming, Taiz has lost a vital paediatric intensive care unit and nutrition centre because two floors have been abandoned due to extensive damage. The hospital’s feeding centre for malnourished children is now operating out of six beds squeezed into one small room on the ground floor.

One of the patients was five-month-old Raoud from al-Sabir. Her skin hanging from her scrawny hands, she was born malnourished and brought in by her visibly thin mother Raghda weighing just three kilos, less than half the expected weight of a healthy baby her age.

“The desperate situation in Taiz exemplifies what is happening in Yemen as a whole,” MSF’s emergency manager for Yemen, Karline Kleijer, said in a statement late last month. It’s often young children like Raoud who suffer first.

According to UN figures, 460,000 Yemeni children currently have severe acute malnutrition. Funding shortages have forced the WFP to cut provisions in Yemen by more than half since last year. While the conflict has left a conservative estimate of some 10,000 dead, the toll on civilians from the ripple effect of the war is unquestionably higher.

With escalating violence on the western coast of the governorate forcing tens of thousands from their homes since January, unless there is a dramatic change in the trajectory of Yemen’s conflict in the coming months, Taiz governorate – including the villagers of Uniquba – is more than likely to be one of the first to gain the undesirable label of “famine.”

This article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

(TOP PHOTO: A child is measured for the signs of malnourishment in Taiz. Ahmed al-Basha/IRIN)


Yemen's silent disaster: A snapshot of life and death in rural Taiz

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