Yemen: Saving lives in a siege

21 Dec 2015
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MSF emergency coordinator Karline Kleijer is just back from three weeks in Yemen, where conflict has been raging for eight months.

"I travelled to Taiz at the end of September. Getting to Yemen is difficult – hardly any planes fly there, so MSF now has its own small plane, based in Djibouti. You need permission from both sides to fly to the capital Sana’a – one warring party controls the airport, the other controls the airspace – and you don’t want to get caught up in bombardments before you’ve even landed.

From Sana’a, we drove to Taiz. We had to cross numerous checkpoints, and we passed fields and fields of qat. Some bridges have been bombed out, so at times we drove straight down the wadis [dry river beds] and up the other side.

The situation in Taiz city is devastating. It’s a large city of 600,000 people with a frontline running down the middle. There is active fighting and daily airstrikes. The sense of fear is big. People are terrified that their children will get wounded or killed. And they have good reason to be frightened.

"Dead within seconds"

A few weeks ago a father was playing soccer with his three children when a shell fell. They weren’t brought to hospital – there was no point as all four were dead within seconds.

A lot of airstrikes happen at night. Lying in your bed, you hear the planes circling above the city, then you hear the whistle of a bomb falling, and then you brace yourself for the impact. You hope it’s not your building that it’s going to hit. And then it hits another building, not your house, so as well as being frightened, you’re also relieved.

The noise of the airstrikes is so loud and intense that you can actually feel it in your bones. This is what people have been going through every night, for months on end.

People in Taiz try to move around as little as possible, because of the checkpoints, and the risk of getting caught up in fighting or hit by airstrikes. But there are sharp contrasts.

You can drive through a street which is completely empty, with barricades for fighters to hide behind, but then you turn the corner and find you’re in a busy street, filled with people going to market stalls and children playing. But at the same time everything is touched by the war: the children have a game called ‘One two three airstrike’ in which they all fling themselves to the ground.

Fourteen of 20 hospitals struck

The prices of food and fuel are very high across Yemen because of the weapons embargo imposed by the UN and Saudi-led coalition – of which the US, France and the UK are part – which blocks all ships from entering Yemen with supplies. Yemen depends on imports for 90 percent of its food and fuel, so prices have surged.

Clean water is an issue as the water needs to be pumped from deep aquifers and there is no fuel to operate the pumps. There’s a definite increase in malnutrition. People are skipping meals, not eating properly, living on their savings. Their coping mechanisms are slowly being drained away.

The situation is even worse in one neighbourhood of Taiz city, home to about 50,000 people, which has effectively been under siege since July.

While residents can cross the checkpoints into the enclave on foot, they are often not allowed to bring in any food, drinking water or fuel. Our trucks of medical supplies for the two hospitals inside the enclave have been stuck at a checkpoint for more than six weeks. It is very frustrating.

Taiz normally has 20 hospitals, but 14 have been forced to close because they have been damaged by the airstrikes and shelling or have run out of medicines, fuel and medical staff. MSF is supporting the six hospitals that remain open where needed. Most of the patients have blast wounds and bullet wounds.

Visiting one of the still-functioning hospitals, I met four young boys, aged around nine or ten, two of them brothers. They had been playing with an UXO – unexploded ordnance. They had thrown a grenade against a wall until it had blown up, leaving two of them with severe injuries.

"The only surgeon left"

The injured boys had been operated on by the hospital’s director, who was also the only surgeon left in the hospital. He was doing all the surgery by himself and he was exhausted. Even though it was a private hospital, he didn’t ask his patients for money, saying they could pay him back after the war.

When we offered him our support, he broke down in tears. He was a remarkable man – but he is just one of so many Yemeni medical staff struggling to support their people in any way they can.

MSF is the only international organisation operational in Taiz – but even then our impact is not that huge. Our focus is on the war-wounded and emergency cases, with support to surgery and post-operative care. The war has made it very difficult for people to access ordinary health services.

Because it is important that women and children have a place where they can go for healthcare, next week we also plan to open a mother and child hospital in Taiz."