U.N. and aid groups paint bleak picture for Yemen

Boys stand around the wreckage of a vehicle at the site of a car bomb attack next to a Shiite mosque in Sanaa, Yemen. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Humanitarian groups sounded the alarm this week, warning that people in Yemen are suffering on all fronts as the armed conflict there grinds on. Hundreds of thousands of civilians face steep food shortages, diseases like dengue and malaria, and a breakdown of health and safety systems, forcing many to flee the country.

On Tuesday, an official with the U.N. warned that armed groups were deliberately starving Yemenis. U.N. special rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, also said that more than 6 million people are severely food insecure and more than 850,000 children suffer from acute malnutrition.

“The deliberate starvation of civilians in both international and internal armed conflict may constitute a war crime,” said Elver.

The conflict began in March when Iranian-allied Houthi rebels took control of capital city Sanaa. Since then, the rebels launched a campaign south to reach the city of Aden. Support from Saudi Arabia helped beat back the advances made by the Houthis, but took a toll on Yemeni citizens. The World Health Organization estimates 4,345 people died and 22,110 were injured since March 19.

The change seen in the country is stark, said Dr. Tammam Aloudat, deputy medical director at Doctors Without Borders. His recent visit to the country was his first return since 2011, and it is very different from that last visit.

“For me, the biggest difference was that the general sense of optimism had turned into desperation and fear for the future. It is sadly a justified fear, as Yemenis are today living through one of the worst armed conflicts MSF has ever seen,” Aloudat wrote on a blog.

International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer visited Yemen earlier this week. And like his colleague at the U.N., Maurer is deeply concerned, calling the situation “nothing short of catastrophic” in a released statement.

“Medicines can’t get in so patient care is falling apart. Fuel shortages mean equipment doesn’t work. Insecurity means vaccination campaigns don’t happen. And of course, the fighting makes getting to hospital a dangerous venture. It’s a terrible downward spiral that puts thousands of lives at risk,” he said.

The humanitarian group Mercy Corps said this week that accumulating trash in city streets is contributing to rising numbers of malaria and dengue cases. Mosquitoes flourish in pooled water in the filthy streets. More than 8,000 dengue cases have been recorded since the beginning of the conflict.

Humanitarian actors involved in Yemen made a fresh push to bring attention to the desperate circumstances. It comes at a time when resources to support refugees across the Middle East are already stretched thin. The 3 million Yemeni refugees represent just a slice of the total in the region – coming from Syria, Palestine, Iraq and elsewhere.

World Food Program Executive Director Ertharin Cousin made a plea yesterday for more financial support to deliver food aid across the region.

“How much assistance we provide will depend on how much money we receive. How many people will we serve will depend on how much money we receive. How long we serve them will depend on how much money we receive,” she said.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.