Camel trail breathes life into besieged Yemeni city

Powered by automated translation

ADEN // In the mountains surrounding the besieged city of Taez, a line of camels is seen toiling along a steep rocky track.

Strapped to the animal’s backs is a precious life-saving cargo – bottles of oxygen destined for the city’s few remaining hospitals.

Large parts of Taez have been under ruthless siege from anti-government Houthi rebels since last August and the blockade has led to a severe shortage of medical supplies.

One of the biggest challenges has been an acute shortage of bottled oxygen. The dwindling supplies have killed dozens of patients, one doctor said, most of them newborn babies.

In response, Yemenis have clubbed together to send weekly smuggling missions through the mountains, bypassing the Houthi front lines.

The oxygen bottles, many of which are supplied by the Emirates Red Crescent, are strapped to the camels using wooden supports and, on occasion, donkeys. They then set off with their herders on an arduous four-hour journey to reach the city.

When they arrive, the bottles are distributed to the hospitals depending on where the need is greatest, said Albdulhameed Al Batra, who started the campaign to organise the aid missions.

“The Emirates Red Crescent provided us with 100 oxygen cylinders, and we paid the owners of the camels and donkeys owners to get them to Taez city through the mountains,” said Mr Al Batra, 34, a law graduate from Aden.

When he heard about the dire situation inside Taez, he started a fund-raising campaign with friends through a Facebook account.

As the donations came in, they gathered enough money for the first mission early last month. They pay the camel owners 1,400 Yemeni Riyals (Dh25) for each animal used on the journey.

Taez has become the key battleground in the war between forces loyal to the internationally-backed government and the Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran and supported by troops loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

An Arab coalition is also fighting to restore president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi to full control of the country, and the UAE played a key role in liberating Aden and southern Yemen, with the Emirates Red Cresent leading the aid distribution and rebuilding programme.

As the casualties from the fighting around Taez have mounted, so the hospitals and their staff have come under increasing strain.

For some, the smuggled oxygen bottles arrived too late.

Emad Al Ghaili’s wife went into labour with their first child in mid December and he took her to Al Thawra, one of the last four hospitals still open in Taez.

When the child was born after three hours, the doctors said he needed emergency oxygen, but they had run out.

“The doctor was wrapping the child, while I was contacting the other three hospitals in Taez to ask if there is oxygen,” Mr Al Ghaili, 29, told The National, his voice filled with sorrow. “But all the attempts failed, and the child died two hours after his birth.”

Dr Abdul Hakeem Al Adimi, who works at Al Thawra, the largest hospital in Taez province, said most of those who have died from not having emergency oxygen have been babies.

“Not all of the newborn children need oxygen,” he said. “Sometimes it goes well, but sometimes we need the oxygen.”

While he could not give an exact figure of the number of deaths caused by the shortage, he said it ran into dozens. He said the hospital had become reliant on the oxygen bottles smuggled in on the camels.

Some aid agencies have in recent weeks managed to delivery vital medical supplies to Taez, where 16 other hospitals have shut down because of the fighting. But until the Houthi blockade is broken, doctors in the city will have to rely on the aid being smuggled in, Dr Al Adimi said. In the meantime, they will have to continue turning away patients.

“We cannot receive more patients in the hospital, if we do not have the oxygen cylinders,” he said. “Some of them leave Taez city towards another province, and others return home to wait for death.”