Fighting Threatens Millions of Civilians: Yemenis Forced to Eat Leaves to Survive

September 14th, 2018 - by admin

Ahmed Al-Haj / Associated Press & Maggie Michael| / The Daily Star – 2018-09-14 23:08:27

World Food Program Says
Port City Fighting Threatens Millions of Yemenis

Ahmed Al-Haj / Associated Press

“The Saudis need to stop their genocidal invasion,
whose only ‘reason’ is that the Houthis
don’t practice the Saudi version of Islam.”

— online comment

SANAA, Yemen (September 14, 2018) — A recent bout of fighting between Yemeni government forces backed by a Saudi-led coalition and Shiite rebels around the Red Sea port city of Hodeida could jeopardize shipments of 46,000 tons of wheat expected to arrive within the next ten days, the World Food Program said on Friday.

The latest offensive began last week following the failure of what was hoped to be renewed peace talks to resume in Geneva. It was concentrated in the eastern and southern entrances to the city, which is considered the lifeline of Yemen.

WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said humanitarian workers, infrastructure and food supplies have been targeted in recent days as clashes are still ongoing near the Red Sea Mill Silos, a critical facility for WFP operations.

The fighting could impact WFP’s ability to supply up to 3.5 million people in dire need in northern and central Yemen for one month, he said.

He said a mortar shell launched by an unidentified armed group also hit a WFP warehouse in Hodeida city holding enough food to assist 19,200 people, wounding a guard at the warehouse.

UN Human Coordinator for Yemen Lise Grande said on Thursday that the situation in Hodeida has deteriorated dramatically in the past few days.

“People are struggling to survive,” said Grande. “More than 25 percent of children are malnourished; 900,000 people in the governorate are desperate for food and 90,000 pregnant women are at enormous risk.”

The fighting for Hodeida has also effectively shut down the main artery linking the port city to the rest of the country, the Save the Children charity said Thursday.

Tamer Kirolos of Save the Children said “it’s quite literally a matter of life and death” for the main road linking Hodeida to the capital Sanaa to remain open.

“This year alone we expect some 400,000 children under five to suffer from severe acute malnutrition . . . Unless supply routes remain open this figure could increase dramatically, putting the lives of thousands of children at risk from entirely preventable causes,” he said.

He urged warring parties “to end hostilities immediately, commit to a ceasefire and give peace a chance.”

The Norwegian Refugee Council has called for Hodeida port and the arteries that lead from it to remain open.

“Hodeida is not a trophy and its citizens are not toys . . . A single act of force to disrupt the flow of supplies from Hodeida would be a deadly blow for millions,” said Jan Engelan of the NRC.

Aid agencies in Yemen have identified close to 500,000 people that had fled homes in Hodeida between June and August, NRC said. So far in September, 55,000 people have been displaced from across Hodeida, It added.

The UN special envoy met with representatives of the rebels, known as Houthis, in Muscat, Oman’s capital, to discuss ways to ensure their participation in future consultations and prepare for his visit to the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, Martin Griffiths tweeted on Thursday.

Griffiths sought earlier this week to downplay the significance of the failure of launching peace talks, saying on Saturday that he would head back to Yemen and neighboring Oman “within days” to work toward an agreement on a new date.

A delegation of the internationally recognized government arrived in Geneva last week for the talks, which were supposed to start on September 6, but the Houthis did not, arguing their safe return was not guaranteed.

Shortly after the failure to launch peace talks, the government forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition renewed their offensive to retake the rebel-held Hodeida. They had tried to overrun Hodeida in June but were blocked by the rebels’ resistance.

One main objective of the ongoing fighting is to cut off the road between Hodeida and Sanaa, thus depriving the capital city, which is controlled by the Iranian-backed Houthis, from supplies arriving by sea. Government forces are also trying to cut off the road to Taiz, a fiercely contested and strategic city south of Hodeida.

Also Friday, a Saudi apache helicopter crashed in Yemen’s easternmost province of al-Mahra on Friday, killing two crew people, tribal leaders said on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals.

The state-run Saudi Press Agency, quoting military spokesman Col. Turki al-Maliki, acknowledged the death of a “pilot and his co-pilot” in a helicopter that crashed following a “technical fault.” He said the Saudi Royal Land Forces helicopter went down at 8:20 a.m. Friday while conducting operations in Yemen’s al-Mahra province.

Impoverished Yemen has been embroiled in the war pitting the Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-aligned Houthis since March 2015. The war against the rebels has devastated impoverished Yemen, turning the Arab nation into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with more than 20 million people in need of assistance.

Starving Yemenis Forced to Eat
Vine Leaves to Stay Alive

Maggie Michael| / Associated Press & The Daily Star

“We are in the 21st century,
but this is what the war did to us.
I go home and I can’t put food in my mouth.”

— Health Center Chief in Yemen

CAIRO (September 15, 2018) — In a remote pocket of northern Yemen, many families with starving children have nothing to eat but the leaves of a local vine, boiled into a sour, acidic green paste. International aid agencies have been caught off guard by the extent of the suffering there as parents and children waste away.

The main health center in Aslam district was flooded with dozens of emaciated children during a recent visit by the Associated Press.

Excruciatingly thin toddlers, eyes bulging, sat in a plastic washtub used in a makeshift scale as nurses weighed them one by one. Their papery skin was stretched tight over pencil-like limbs and knobby knees. Nurses measured their forearms, just a few centimeters in diameter, marking the worst stages of malnutrition.

At least 20 children are known to have died of starvation already this year, more than three years into the country’s ruinous civil war, in the province that includes the district.

The real number is likely far higher, since few families report their children’s deaths when they die at home, officials say. In one nearby village, a 7-month-old girl, Zahra, cries and reaches with her bony arms for her mother to feed her. Her mother is undernourished herself and is often unable to breastfeed Zahra.

She can’t afford formula for her baby. “Since the day she was born, I have not had the money to buy her milk or buy her medicine,” the mother said. Zahra was recently treated at the heath center. Now at home, she’s dwindling away again.

With no money, her parents can’t afford to hire a car or motorbike take her back to the clinic. If they don’t, Zahra will die, said Mekkiya Mahdi, the health center chief.

“We are in the 21st century, but this is what the war did to us,” Mahdi said. After she tours villages and sees everyone living off the leaf paste, “I go home and I can’t put food in my mouth.”

The worsening hunger in Aslam is a sign of the gaps in an international aid system that is already overwhelmed and under pressure from local authorities. Yet outside aid is the only thing standing between Yemen’s people and widespread death from starvation.

The conditions in the district may also be an indication that the warnings humanitarian officials have sounded for months are coming true: In the face of unending war, hunger’s spread is outstripping efforts to keep people alive.

When AP approached UN agencies with questions about the situation in Aslam, they expressed alarm and surprise. In response to the AP’s questions, international and local aid groups launched an investigation into why food wasn’t getting to the families that need it the most, a top relief official said.

As a response in the meantime, the official said, relief agencies are sending over 10,000 food baskets to the district, and UNICEF Resident Representative Dr. Meritxell Relano said the organization is increasing its mobile teams in the district from three to four and providing transportation to health facilities.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of issues involved in operating in the war-ravaged country.

In first six months of this year, Al-Hajjah province, where Aslam is located, recorded 17,000 cases of severe acute malnutrition, higher than in any full year on record, said Walid al-Shamshan, head of the Health Ministry’s nutrition section in the province.

Malnourished children who were previously treated return to clinics in even worse condition — if they make it back at all.

“Deaths happen in remote villages where people can’t reach the health units,” Shamshan said. “It’s a steady deterioration and it’s scary.”

Yemen’s civil war has wrecked the impoverished country’s already fragile ability to feed its population.

The war pits Iran-backed rebels known as Houthis, who hold the north, against an Arab coalition, armed and backed by the United States. The coalition has sought to bomb the rebels into submission with an air campaign in support of Yemeni government forces.

Around 2.9 million women and children are acutely malnourished; another 400,000 children are fighting for their lives only a step away from starvation.

The number of people nationwide who would starve if they didn’t receive aid grew by a quarter over the past year, now standing at 8.4 million of Yemen’s 29 million people, according to UN figures. That number is likely to soon jump by another 3.5 million because the currency is losing value, leaving growing numbers of people unable to afford food, the UN warned this month.

Aslam is one of the poorest districts in the country, with hundreds of small villages, some isolated in the high mountains in the Houthi heartland. Its population of 75,000 to 106,000 includes both local residents and accelerating numbers of displaced people who fled fighting elsewhere. In terms of hunger, Aslam isn’t alone.

Health officials say that other districts closer to war zones may not be getting food aid at all. But Aslam did see one of the province’s highest jumps in the number of reported children suffering from severe acute malnutrition: From 384 cases being treated in January, an additional 1,319 more came in over the next six months, according to local health records. That comes to around 15 percent of the district’s children.

“Aslam is just another picture of Somalia,” said Saleh al-Faqih, a worker in a mobile Health Ministry clinic, comparing it to the Horn of Africa nation often hit by famines.

Aslam’s main health center has no pediatricians, no electricity, no oxygen cylinders. At night, medics use flashlights because there is no fuel for generators. Fathers beg in the nearby market for 300 riyals — around 50 US cents — to buy a diaper for their child going into the center.

Before the war, the center would see one or two malnourished children a month. In August alone, it received 99 cases, nearly half of them in the most severe stages, the center’s nutrition chief Khaled Hassan said. Even after treatment, children often deteriorate once again when they go home to villages with no food and contaminated water.

There appeared to be multiple reasons why aid was not reaching some of the starving, beyond the rapid increase in those in need.

The lion’s share of assistance goes to displaced people, while only 20 percent goes to the local community, said Azma Ali, a worker with the World Food Program. Agencies’ criteria give priority for help to the displaced and households without a breadwinner, even as local residents also struggle to find food.

Under heavy pressure from Houthi authorities, international agencies like WFP and UNICEF and their Yemeni partners are required to use lists of needy provided by local officials.

Critics accuse those officials of favoritism. That especially works against the local population in Aslam, where many belong to the “Muhammasheen,” Arabic for the “Marginalized,” a community of darker-skinned Yemenis shunned by the rest of society and left to work as garbage collectors, menial laborers or beggars.

The Marginalized have no weight with officials to ensure aid goes their way. One humanitarian coordinator in Al-Hajjah said local Houthi authorities distribute aid unfairly.

“The powerful hinder the work of the humanitarian agencies and deprive of aid those people who are in most need,” he said. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of problems with the authorities.

Some residents said local officials demand small bribes to get on food lists — the equivalent of around 15 US cents, but still too much for many people here. UN agencies have insufficient capacity to oversee many distribution centers.

Food deliveries that do make it to Aslam come irregularly or are too small or are missing items, residents and aid workers said.

People in Aslam have become increasingly reliant on leaves from the local vine, known in Yemeni Arabic as “halas” or in English as Arabian Wax Leaf. It used to be eaten only occasionally but now it’s all many residents eat for every meal.

Mothers spend hours picking the leaves, then washing and boiling them. Too much of it causes diarrhea. The water it’s washed in — well water often tainted with sewage — is also a constant cause of diarrhea.

In the village of al-Mashrada, Zahra’s mother feeds her whole family with halas mush. She has seven other children, including two boys with mental disorders who are kept chained inside their shack so they don’t wander away.

The children’s father roams the town, looking for food.

Zahra’s mother said only “the big heads” — the better-off and well-connected — end up with international aid. “We only have God. We are poor and we have nothing.”

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