Kids bear brunt of Yemen conflict

Anjana Sankar /Mukalla (Yemen) Filed on September 16, 2018 | Last updated on September 16, 2018 at 07.02 am
Kids bear brunt of Yemen conflict

(Ryan Lim/KT)

According to the UN, an estimated 1.8 million children under the age of five are acutely malnourished.

Three-month-old Mohammed's feeble yet agonizing cries tear through the stuffy hospital room in Mukalla, an erstwhile Al Qaeda territory in South Yemen.

He is three months old. But his scrawny, malnourished body looks like a skinny bag of bones. His swollen eyes hang out of the sockets from his bloated head. Diarrhea seems to have dangerously worsened his condition.

Mohammed is one among the 500,000 starving babies in Yemen - a country that is in the throes of a ruinous civil war that has lasted for more than three years now. More than 14,000 civilians have been killed by Al Houthi rebels, including 1,500 children and 865 women - since the beginning of the war in 2015, according to the Yemen's Ministry of Human Rights.

Almost two thirds of its 26 million population are dependent on aid and the country is on the brink of a famine. According to the UN, an estimated 1.8 million children under the age of five are acutely malnourished. And 400,000 are starving and at 10 times the normal risk of dying.

When Khaleej Times visited this hospital for women and children in the area, there were half a dozen mothers who had brought their skeletal-looking children for medical treatment.

"I am feeding my baby Cerelac milk. My husband does not have a job. He works on some day. Whenever he gets money, he feeds his kids," Mohammed's mother Hanan said, while trying to pacify her baby.

The young mother, who has two other children, says things are okay. She seems to be embarrassed to admit she is unable to feed her baby well.

Abha Abdalla, hospital director, said the facility is struggling to take in patients. "We have only six beds. We can only take 35 patients a month."

But she said the situation has improved compared to how it was when Hadramawt province was under the control of Al Qaeda.

An Arab coalition military operation in 2016 vanquished the militant groups and forced them to withdraw to their hideouts in the mountains.

But in the North, the prolonged military action between the Iran-backed Al Houthis and the internationally recognised Yemeni government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is supported by the Arab coalition, is proving to be catastrophic for thousands of people trapped in the civil war.

With an acute food shortage, starvation and a wide-spread outbreak of cholera, Yemen has become what the UN calls "the worst man-made humanitarian crisis in our time".

At the heart of Yemen's hunger crisis is the battle for the control of Hodeida port, the principal lifeline for millions of Yemenis who are dependent on aid.

The UAE, which is part of the coalition, has affirmed its stand that the liberation of the port from Houthi's control is essential for a political solution of the Yemen crisis.

"We are determined to end this war. Our priority is the peaceful withdrawal of Houthi militias from the city and port," Dr Anwar Gargash, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said in a tweet.

Collapse of peace talks prolonging Yemen's hunger crisis

But with the collapse of peace talks in Geneva last week, Yemen's appalling humanitarian crisis seems to drag on indefinitely.

The no-show by the Houthi delegation in Geneva has dealt a severe blow to the diplomatic initiatives by UN's special envoy Martin Griffith to bring the warring factions in Yemen across the negotiating table.

Mechanism to ensure an uninterrupted flow of humanitarian aid to Hodeida was high on Griffith's peace agenda, in addition to other confidence-building measures like release of prisoners and opening of Sanaa airport.

"Despite the serious setback in Geneva the way forward is still a political solution. What is perhaps clearer now to the international community is the unwillingness of the Houthis to engage in good faith with such a process," Dr Gargash tweeted.

International intervention needed to save children

Meanwhile, the local governments are counting on international aid to resurrect Yemen's crumbling health system, that is hardly able to cater to the population.

Speaking to Khaleej Times, Dr Riad Al Jariri, Director of Health Department in Hadramawt, said the WHO has helped a lot.

"The problem is not just financial. We are now able to give people 50 or 100 per cent discounts on treatment. The problem is with the space."

Dr Khalil Bamatraf, a young medic working in Mukalla, says malnutrition is a severe problem in Hadramawt, and children are dying of starvation.

"I have seen that most of the families have nothing to eat and they use medical treatment for malnutrition as the main meal," she said.

The doctor also described how she met a family with five disabled children, all of them with severe malnutrition. "One of them just died of starvation."

For two years, she has been working with families in rural areas with no access to health care.

"Malnutrition is severe in these areas. We need help not just from the local governments, but all international humanitarian agencies have to intervene to prevent the death of the children and the older people," said Bamatraf.


Anjana Sankar

Anjana Sankar is a UAE-based journalist chasing global stories of conflict, migration and human rights. She has reported from the frontlines of the wars in Yemen and Syria and has extensively written on the refugee crisis in Bangladesh, Iraq and Europe. From interviewing Daesh militants to embedding with the UAE army in Yemen, and covering earthquakes, floods, terrorist attacks and elections, she has come out scathe-free from the most dangerous conflict zones of the world. Riding on over 14 years of experience, Anjana currently is an Assistant Editor with Khaleej Times and leads the reporting team. She often speaks about women empowerment on her Facebook page that has 40,000 plus followers.

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