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Yemenis Fight for Survival in Country on the Brink of Famine

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Nasser al-Sakkaf

After doctors diagnosed his daughter with cholera and warned that she could die, Mohammed al-Barhi sold two sheep to raise the cash to transport her from the makeshift camp the family calls home to a specialized health clinic.

Yemeni family

Adhwa, seven, survived following two days of treatment in Taiz, in south-west Yemen. She and her father then made the 50km journey back to the camp where they and 150 other families have taken refuge from Yemen's war. It means they are again dependent on untreated water drawn from a well - a potential source of Adhwa's cholera infection.

"We are displaced people, we depend on aid to provide us with food. We cannot build baths or kitchens and we cannot even buy clean water," says Mr. Bahri, a shepherd in his 50s.

His 11-member family are among millions of Yemenis trapped in a conflict that has triggered one of the world's worst humanitarian crises: two-thirds of the 28m population face food shortages and lack access to clean water. More than 5,000 civilians have been killed by bullets and bombs. Another 7m are on the brink of famine, according to the UN.

Now a cholera epidemic is raging across the country. The disease has killed more than 2,000 people since April and infected 612,000 others; more than half of the suspected cases are children. It is a man-made catastrophe, UN officials say.

"This deadly cholera outbreak is the direct consequence of over two years of conflict," says Meritxell Relaño, the UN children's fund representative in Yemen. "Water and sanitation systems are collapsing. More than half of Yemen's health facilities are out of service, cutting off nearly 15m Yemenis from access to safe water and basic healthcare."

Services have collapsed as the country has been split between Ansarullah revolutionaries, who control the north, and forces in the south loyal to a regime in exile.

Even before the war erupted two-and-a-half years ago, Yemen, an arid country of rugged highlands and desert plains, was blighted by instability and was the Arab world's poorest nation. The war escalated after Saudi Arabia launched a military coalition to back the ousted regime.... Riyadh has been heavily criticized ... that its air strikes have killed civilians. No side has made a significant military breakthrough and the conflict is viewed as a proxy war between two regional rivals - Saudi Arabia and Iran.

"The reticence of the international community in demanding justice for the victims of the conflict in Yemen is shameful, and in many ways is contributing to the continuing horror," Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said this week.

The humanitarian situation is worse in the north, where up to 1m civil servants have not been paid for almost a year, exacerbating extreme poverty. In the south, the exiled regime, bankrolled by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, does pay some public sector salaries and provides clean water and electricity in areas in and around Aden, the port city that is its main base.

At the camp where Mr. Barhi lives, people cook on open fires and depend on food handouts from aid groups. Many, who live under plastic sheets slung over old truck tires and flimsy sticks, have to beg to survive.

Mr. Bahri's family moved to the camp in February to escape fighting in Mawza, south-west of Taiz. Now he regrets leaving his home.

"We blame the warring sides for all our suffering as they forced us to flee our houses and live at these camps, which are not suitable even for my sheep," Mr. Barhi says. "The life in the war was better than living at the camp."

In towns and cities, schools have been closed and turned into temporary shelters for some of the 3m people the conflict has forced from their homes.

As the economy and the state have collapsed, civil servants have become street vendors, manual laborers or shopkeepers.

Mohammed Hasan, 26, a teacher, travelled north from Taiz to Sanaa to find work after his school was closed. He now sells ice creams in the capital to help support his family.

"I have a bachelors degree in mathematics and a diploma in English, but certificates cannot provide me with food," he says. "My family is luckier than many others as I can eke out a living for them. There are many families starving to death."

Aseel Nabil, an accountant who lost his job two years ago, is one of the millions dependent on food aid. The 43-year-old father of four has stayed in Taiz has been unable to find work.

"There are hundreds of competitors for one job, so it is difficult," he says. "I tried to work as a vendor selling clothes, but I didn't succeed because I don't have experience in this field."

Food is available in Taiz's markets, but prices have doubled as the riyal has plummeted against the dollar.
"We can import any kind of food, but people don't have money," Mr. Nabil says.

Yemenis also complain that some wheat supplied by the UN World Food Program, which should be distributed for free, is being traded on the market.

WFP said it "takes very seriously any reports of diversions of our food assistance".

"Our top priority in Yemen is to provide food to those in greatest need as we seek to stop a famine occurring in Yemen and we carry out detailed assessments with other agencies to make sure our operations reach the people who need food most," WFP said.

Without additional aid, Taiz risks "slipping into famine," according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Mr. Bahri says he has little choice but to put his faith in aid groups and God, while adding that he has never received WFP food despite living near a distribution center.

"I do not want to see my children beg people in the streets to get food, so I hope to see organizations set up camps for us and return our children to schools," he says. "We believe that Allah has already written our destiny, so I trust that he will not forget us."

Source: FT, Edited by Website Team


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