In March 2015, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia began military operations in Yemen after Houthi rebels took over major cities. For the past 18 months, children and their families in Yemen have lived with blockades, aerial bombing and deprivation on a staggering scale.
Since the start of air strikes in 2015, the conflict has killed more than 6,400 people and injured 31,000, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Humanitarian organisations like Action Against Hunger have been working to help those in urgent need. However, access constraints and direct attacks on aid workers trying to ease the living conditions for families affected by the violence are making this difficult.
Working in Yemen
Approaching Sana’a airport from above, Yemen looks prosperous and peaceful: coloured houses, gardens, fields, greenery.
The view on landing tells a different story. The burnt carcasses of military aircraft lay on the tarmac, hangars appear twisted by some inhuman strength, and an airliner cut in half sits ominously on the runway.
There is a buzz at the airport as several flights have just arrived. Planes can only take off and land daily during a specific period of time allocated by the Saudi authorities.
It’s a relatively long drive to the Action Against Hunger office. At the first checkpoint, children knock on the car window, asking for a few coins. Another child, nominally older and casually holding a machine gun, takes a quick look at the driver and waves him forward.
I visited Sana’a during a ceasefire in May, after more than a year of aerial bombings led by Saudi Arabia and fighting against the Houthis. It was noisy. People were busy – probably enjoying the relative quiet that followed the pause in airstrikes. That ceasefire has since failed.
Here and there were the remains of buildings. It was difficult not to wonder if there were bodies buried beneath them. Why had they been bombed?
There was so much to see: shop stalls, the swollen cheeks of kat-chewing passersby, people coming and going – working, shopping, begging. “There are many more people struggling than before,” noted Bilal, the driver. “It’s all since the beginning of the war. People fled, they lost their jobs, some lost their homes.”
The air strikes had stopped a few days before my visit, but I could still hear the coalition’s planes. “They fly over the city every night,” explained Murad, Action Against Hunger’s security advisor, “maintaining a climate of tension and serving as a constant reminder that they can strike at any time.”
A child stands by a newly installed water tank. Photo: Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger
On the road
Travel for the team, Murad explained, remained extremely limited. “The risk of kidnapping is lower than it was before, but we prefer not to take any risks,” he said.
Working in a conflict-affected country where aid workers have become prime targets makes things complicated. Action Against Hunger’s international team was forced to leave the country temporarily in April 2015. They soon returned to organise and coordinate our lifesaving programmes and try to reach vulnerable families every day.
But it hasn’t been easy.
In the south of Yemen, the presence of Al-Qaeda and airstrikes have made access to Abyan governorate impossible for several weeks. Meanwhile, in the north local authorities are increasing their demands on international aid agencies and there are numerous negotiations to work while respecting the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality. To refuse demands is to risk not being able to reach populations in need: a tough choice facing all international aid agencies in Yemen today.
Any field trip involves significant planning. At least two cars are chartered and someone in charge of security, who has a relationship with the authorities, is present.
A new water tank installed by Action Against Hunger in a village in Yemen. Water is essential for preventing malnutrition in young children. Photo: Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger
Action Against Hunger has three offices in Yemen: Aden, Hodeidah and Sana’a. The Aden office is accessible only by sea from Djibouti, and the road to Hodeidah – a port city in the west of the country – is dotted with checkpoints.
At the first checkpoint, on the outskirts of Sana’a, an armed guard repeatedly checks each passenger. All around, there are minibuses and pickup trucks loaded with men and supplies. After a few minutes, the soldier receives validation from his superior: the journey can continue.
The landscape unfolds: villages with stone houses sit amid mountains covered with lush vegetation. In the valley, sand suddenly appears, accompanied by a damp and stifling heat. We pass the final checkpoint at the entrance of Hodeidah: there have been more than 20 during the five-hour drive separating the two cities.
A nutritional crisis
Ahmed, has malaria. He’s receiving treatment at the Action Against Hunger’s nutrition centre in Hays. Photo: Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger
In Hayis, a city in the southern governorate of Hodeidah, Action Against Hunger supports a nutrition centre for families and their malnourished children. According to our local team and representatives of Yemen’s Ministry of Health, the number of patients had increased: the families come from far away, many of them have been displaced by the conflict and their situation has worsened.
We observed a marked increase in the number of admissions to the centre. Before March 2015, we had 15 or 16 admissions per month. Since the strikes began, that has doubled. However, perhaps more worryingly, for the past two months the numbers have decreased. Our team fear this decrease is related to the inability of families to pay for transportation to the centre and the challenges facing aid workers trying to access the most vulnerable families.
We therefore call on all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law and allow aid workers safe and sustained access to children and families caught up in the conflict.
Photos and Writing: Florian Seriex for Action Against Hunger