Coping with crisis in Yemen

The war in Yemen is a multifocal one; the Houthis and ex-President Saleh, President Hadi and troops still loyal to him, Al Qaeda, Islamic State, the southern secessionist militias – and into this maelstrom Saudi Arabia started a bombing campaign, which has only aggravated the fighting militias and not stopped any of their advances. Most areas in the west of Yemen (the old North Yemen plus Aden) are witnessing bombs and militia activity on a daily basis, many have lost their homes due to conflict. In the middle of it all, most ordinary Yemeni people do not belong to a militia and do not want to fight at all, but they are finding that ordinary life has become extremely complicated and hazardous, with even basic needs such as eating, drinking, washing, cooking, becoming difficult and challenging tasks.

Most people in the west of Yemen have not been able to work since the conflict escalated with the start of the Saudi bombing campaign at the end of March. Some people are still receiving their salaries, for example, government employees in the North are still being paid, but Aden government salaries have stopped. Even people still getting their government salaries are not sure how long that can continue. Although most businesses in this area have had to cease trading, some are continuing, for example, water tankers are in demand; however, their costs are escalating due to having to buy petrol on the black market at grossly inflated prices in order to transport water to the cities. Some who are working in internationally funded humanitarian agencies in Sana’a such as UNICEF are still employed but finding the demands have increased significantly, whilst resources available are in limited supply. For others who are still able to work getting to their place of employment is a major problem as petrol is in very short supply and public transport is erratic and expensive due to rising petrol costs. In the east of Yemen, Hadramaut, there is less disruption of employment, although this area has a low population because it is mainly desert, and it is under stress because of the large numbers of internally displaced people arriving there. This area is under Al Qaeda control but mostly stable at the moment. In all parts of Yemen prices are rapidly escalating due to the extensive Saudi blockade of Yemeni ports; people who are relying on their savings to buy essentials are finding that their savings are becoming depleted and they face an uncertain future. There is little sign of humanitarian aid arriving due to the blockade. It is hardly surprising that most Yemeni people that I know are now thinking they must move from Yemen in order to survive. This too is not easy as most countries in the Middle East, Asia and Europe are not accepting Yemeni refugees, despite their life threatening circumstances. One way out is by boat across the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden to Somalia and Djibouti; those arriving in Somalia are moving to another war torn country that is more stable than Yemen at the moment. Those Yemenis who have travelled to Djibouti in tens of thousands have not been welcomed and they are living in dire circumstances with little assistance. The other route out is to cross the border into Oman, although Oman is only issuing permits for people who plan to travel across Oman and leave by plane for a third country. So far the only country that has offered asylum to people from Yemen is Malaysia.

So people are trapped inside conflict.The emergency services in Yemen were never well developed, and are now under severe strain. This means that when bombing attacks occur, emergency services rarely turn up.  Local people who are not equipped or trained step in to find people who are injured or dead amongst the rubble, and transport them to hospital.  Often this is done when the rescuers themselves face great danger when they enter buildings that have already been severely damaged, and the survivors who are pulled out might face further injuries because of the makeshift nature of their rescue.

For most Yemenis, the supply of water is their most pressing need.  Even before the conflict water was becoming a serious concern; one city Taiz did not have a regular water supply and it was forecast that Sana’a would be the first capital city in the world to run out of water. In the highlands, water is pumped out of deep wells, needing diesel or electricity. The conflict and blockade has caused erratic electricity and diesel is in very short supply, so water cannot be pumped up. Since April water no longer arrives in people’s homes direct, but instead people leave their homes in search of water, collect it in containers and bring it home. This can only happen when electricity is switched on; in some areas of the capital city residents have reported being without electricity for up to seven days at a time.  When the electricity came on, people rushed out to their nearest water supply; their need was such that sometimes there were fights in the queues waiting for water as people were so desperate. This was helped by some Yemeni benefactors paying for water tankers to bring water to residents in areas that were in short supply.

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Water delivery in Yemen

However many humanitarian agencies point to the problems that might arise from contaminated or unclean water in this crisis, and this can only be a temporary stop-gap.  It is aggravated by the lack of fuel for boiling water to make it safe.  All  of the water that is needed by a family – for drinking, cooking, washing and laundering, all has to be bought into the house via plastic containers.

Whilst food is in limited supply and expensive, more pressing is the issue of cooking it.  There has not been any cooking fuel for nearly three months.  Where people have an old tanour oven they are using it, and sharing this facility with their neighbours. For example, one friend has a tanour oven which they share with five other houses which means it is at full capacity most waking hours. It is a boiler shaped oven that has a fire underneath; with little fuel, the only thing that can be used for cooking is wood – and there are not many trees in Yemen.

bread cooking on the side walls of a tanour oven
bread cooking on the side walls of a tanour oven

Many bakeries are no longer functioning and people have to bake their own bread by sticking it on the walls of the oven. Most Sana’a people also have a large metal casserole dish in which they cook the traditional Yemeni food over the fire; a stew of meat and vegetables called salta.

Where people have been made homeless, it is not overseas agencies that have stepped in; it is the hospitable nature of Yemen.  People have opened their homes to others who have lost theirs. In every home that I know of, my Yemeni friends have said that they have a family staying in each of their rooms; a three bedroomed home with 16,18 or more people living together.  Even people who are displaced who have found a small home are sharing it with new arrivals until the seams are almost bursting.

There is no time to start thinking about mental health issues: whole families traumatised as their circumstances have changed from peace to a bloody, senseless war with no end to their insecurity and a lack of hope. Jobs and education disrupted and with no certainty of ever returning to paid employment, or completing school and university. And no end to the constant bombs and hounding by militias. Many must suffer from post-traumatic stress, but there is no treatment available. I have friends in Yemen; I go to bed thinking of them; wake up in the night thinking of them, and they are my first thought when I get up in the morning.  How much worse it must be if you are caught in this prison of conflict.

A lot was said about wartime Britain surviving the blitz.  This is Yemen’s blitz.  They are struggling, and left to do it on their own, with little awareness or concern from others in the world.  If they manage to escape this hell, they will be called economic migrants.