Facing famine and with nowhere to run, Yemen’s civilians bear brunt of war

More than 14 million people, over half of Yemen’s population, are short of food, while thousands inside and outside the country are blocked from entering or leaving.

Saida Ahmad Baghili, 18, is suffering from severe acute malnutrition. She is pictured here at Al Thawra hospital in the Red Sea port of Hodeidah on October 24, 2016. Abduljabbar Zeyad/Reuters
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HODEIDAH // Saida Ahmad Baghili, 18, lies on a hospital bed in the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, her emaciated frame stark evidence of the malnutrition spread by Yemen’s civil war.

Ms Baghili arrived at Al Thawra hospital on Saturday. She is bedridden and unable to eat, surviving on a diet of juice, milk and tea.

“The problem is malnutrition due to [her] financial situation and the current [war] situation at this time,” Asma Al Bhaiji, a nurse at the hospital, said on Tuesday.

The 18-year-old is one of more than 14 million people, over half of Yemen’s population, who are short of food, with much of the country on the brink of famine, according to the United Nations.

Her picture is a reminder of the humanitarian crisis in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country where at least 10,000 people have been killed in fighting between pro-government forces – backed by the Saudi-led coalition – and the Iran-allied Houthi rebels.

Ms Baghili is from the small village of Shajn, about 100 kilometres south-west of Hodeidah, and used to work with sheep before developing signs of malnutrition five years ago, according to her aunt, Saida Ali Baghili.

“She was fine. She was in good health. There was nothing wrong with her. And then she got sick,” said Ms Ali Baghili.

“She has been sick for five years. She can’t eat. She says her throat hurts.”

Although Ms Baghili was ill before the war began, her condition deteriorated when heavy fighting broke out in March last year with her family lacking the money for treatment.

She lost more weight and over the past two months has developed diarrhoea.

“Her father couldn’t [afford to] send her anywhere [for treatment] but some charitable people helped out,” her aunt said, without elaborating who the donors were.

The war, which was prompted by the Houthis’ takeover of large parts of the country between September 2014 and March 2015, is damaging the lives of Yemenis in other ways too.

With travel severely restricted by the fighting, thousands of people inside and outside the country have been blocked from entering or leaving.

One of those blocked from leaving is Abdulsalam Khaled, who is unable to pursue an English-language studies master’s degree in India despite being awarded a scholarship.

Now all the 34-year-old can do now is wander the streets of the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, lamenting his bad luck.

“Because the airport is closed, I’m now stuck and can’t travel,” he said, showing his scholarship documents.

“There are other airports in Yemen I could have flown from, but unfortunately we can’t reach them because of security problems.”

Sanaa international airport was shut on August 9 when the coalition resumed air strikes on the city after the last round of peace talks in Kuwait collapsed.

It reopened days later, but only for humanitarian flights which must notify the coalition in advance.

Even before August 9, the country’s sole operator still serving Sanaa – the national carrier, Yemenia – was only running a few scheduled commercial flights to Amman, Cairo and Nairobi.

“There are thousands of cases – students, patients, passengers and many others cannot travel,” said Sanaa airport chief, Khaled Al Shayef. Many people have also been stranded outside the country, unable to return home.

* Reuters, Agence France-Presse