Covering Crisis: An Eyewitness Account of the Unfolding Emergency in Yemen
In April 2017, Getty Images Reportage photographer Giles Clarke travelled to Yemen with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to document the humanitarian situation in the country. In this personal account, Clarke shares the most poignant impressions, moments and memories from his month covering the world’s largest humanitarian emergency.
On the side of a mountain road some 30 km south of Sana’a, I meet an adolescent boy named Abnan. He doesn’t know how old he is, and when asked about his education, he replies that he stopped going to school when the roads from his village were closed.
Abnan is one of the millions of children who have been affected by the crisis in Yemen. A brutal conflict between Houthi forces and their allies on one side and the Government of Yemen and a Saudi-led military coalition on the other has brought the country to breaking point. More than 50,000 people have been killed or injured, 2 million children are out of school and nearly 21 million people need humanitarian assistance.
During my three-and-a-half-week assignment with OCHA, I travelled around the country, meeting and photographing people like Abnan. What I saw during my mission was catastrophic: a full-blown humanitarian crisis, with millions of people facing immeasurable suffering that, for the most part, is hidden from the world.
The arrival into Sana’a, Yemen
In mid-April 2017, I boarded a UN-chartered plane from Amman, Jordan, to Sana’a. Commercial flights into Yemen’s capital have been suspended by the Saudi-led coalition since August 2016, making these flights the only way to reach the city by air.
During the three-hour flight, we crossed spectacular landscapes as we flew into Yemeni airspace: bright coastlines, cragged mountains, sun-soaked terraced hillsides. It was hard to imagine that a massive emergency, affecting more than 20 million people, was taking place just below us.
We disembarked the plane and walked through a dilapidated terminal building. It was empty and eerily quiet: roof tiles hung from the ceilings and stray cats darted between the rows of baggage trolleys.
My bags searched and visas stamped, I walked out of the terminal to meet Murad, who works as a driver for OCHA and would accompany me around the country for the coming weeks.
We packed my bags in the trunk of our armoured car and set off to the city centre. Despite the many signs of the conflict — in checkpoints, roadblocks and damaged buildings — Sana’a is a bustling city. Markets are thriving, shops are open for business and children are playing in the street. I soon came to learn that this is a recurring theme in Yemen: people here persevere and carve daily lives out of the ongoing chaos despite the ongoing challenges.
We soon arrived at the heavily guarded UN base — a former hotel from the 1990s that is now the central location for UN staff based in Sana’a. After a security briefing and meeting some of the local OCHA team, we started planning the tricky logistical journey ahead of us. Almost all travel outside the capital city requires a minimum of 48 hours’ advance warning to relevant authorities in order to pass the many checkpoints along the way.
Travels around the country: Khamir to the North
My first trip was to a small village in northern Yemen called Khamir. Located two hours north of Sana’a, Khamir has become home to many displaced people seeking refuge from the war. Beyond safety though, people here have little else. Unlike some of the camps that I have visited in other countries, there is no infrastructure here: no running water, electricity or schools. Home is now just a few tents on a barren hillside with little or no security.
On our arrival, one of the first people I met was 15-year-old Ibtissam. She lives in a ragged, torn tent with her seven siblings; together they survive with some basic help from relatives and other people in the desert settlement. One of her brothers was injured in a hit-and-run car accident while playing near the roadside, but covering medical costs in these situations is impossible for her family. Ibtissam dreams of being a doctor one day. However, with no schools nearby, her opportunities are all too limited.
I miss Sa’ada very much. It is my hometown. I was born there, my siblings were born there. But God knows how we will go back amid these circumstances
The port of Al Hudaydah — West from Sana’a
After returning to Sana’a, we headed to Al Hudaydah. Even before the conflict, this was the port of entry for the large majority of imports of food, fuel and other critical goods. The going was slow at times during our five-hour drive; the roads are narrow and winding through the mountains. Several times, we were forced to drive over dry riverbeds, since many of the bridges on the route to Al Hudaydah have been damaged by air strikes.
After a quick tour of the intensely humid seaside city, we visited a shelter run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The migrant centre provides shelter, food and support to more than 150 men, women and children from the Horn of Africa, most of whom made a perilous journey across the Red Sea in crude smuggler boats.
While there, I was introduced to 17-year-old Mohammad, who left Mogadishu in search of a better life. He bought a ticket for a boat that he thought would get him close to Oman. On 17 March 2017, on the 36 hour voyage from northern Somalia, the rickety wooden boat on which and another 140 were packed on, was attacked by a helicopter gunship. He lost his two close friends in the attack. Mohammad survived after the boat was found and towed ashore, but doctors were forced to amputate his right foot before he regained consciousness.
I talked to Mohammad for a long time over the two visits that I made to the shelter. He was a striker in his local football team in Mogadishu before he left, but now he feels resigned that he will never play his favourite sport again. After my visits, we spoke on WhatsApp for about a month, but then the messages suddenly stopped and the number I tried calling was dead.
We then headed to the port of Al Hudaydah, a once bustling cargo hub for the entire country. It now serves as one of the last major lifelines for the country, importing vital living supplies, food and humanitarian assistance. We were granted access by the harbour captain to visit the tightly controlled port and see first-hand the cranes and infrastructure damaged by Saudi-led coalition air strikes in August 2015.
Yemen depends on imports to meet basic fuel and food needs. As we walked along the dock side observing the silent yellow hoist cranes, we were informed that Yemen imported 90 to 95 per cent of wheat and other staple foods before the violence escalated in March 2015. Since then, imports into Al Hudaydah Port have dropped significantly.
A short drive away, and in complete contrast to the port, the fish market was a bustling hive of activity serving many of the city’s 400,000 residents. While there, I spoke to fishmongers and port workers who, although seemingly busy, are now struggling to make ends meet. Overfishing has depleted nearby coastal waters, and many of them tell me that they are afraid to go into deeper waters after the recent attacks on migrant boats.
Travels around the country: South to Ibb City
After a few days in Al Hudaydah, we drove to the mountain city of Ibb, which hosts a large number of people displaced by heavy ground fighting in the surrounding region. Many of them now live in unfinished buildings donated by local authorities.
An internally displaced man took me to the roof of a building that he lived in with his family. A former engineer from Taiz, he had overseen the installation of solar power units in this and other buildings, which are now critical in providing lighting and keeping cell phones charged.
While in Ibb, we visited a boys’ orphanage within Ibb’s city limits and met a number of children whose parents had been killed in the conflict. The building was heavily guarded, which the staff explain is for the children’s protection: boys here have been targeted for recruitment by armed groups.
Inside the orphanage, the children are kept busy. They study, play football and take shifts helping in the kitchen. As we left, I wondered how many of the older children would soon be affected by the war, or lured into the fighting that was taking place less than 40 km to the south of Ibb City.
Four days in Sa’ada City.
A five-hour journey north of Sana’a is the city of Sa’ada, which has been hit hard by the conflict. Residents here were evacuated in 2015 at the height of the fighting, when many of the city’s buildings and infrastructure were destroyed.
Since early 2016, people have returned and once again have resourcefully carried on with their lives. In the bombed-out ruins of the main street, industrious vendors have reopened shops and small businesses.
On our first day in Sa’ada, we drove up to the gates of Al Joumhouri Hospital, the last functioning hospital in the city. As we entered the compound, we found shocking scenes. Scores of injured and sick people lay under trees and in ward entrances waiting to be treated. Many of them have been waiting for days.
With the accompanying OCHA team, I met paediatricians and nurses working around the clock and against all odds to treat the steady flow of children being brought to the hospital on a daily basis. A child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen — a statistic that could not be more starkly evident than in this hospital.
After being shown the various malnutrition wards, we met six-year-old Batool and her mother as they waited quietly for treatment. The doctor classified Batool as a ‘stage 5’ case — the worst and most life-threatening.
Batool’s family lives in a village near the Saudi border, in the northern part of Yemen. The entire family has taken to sleeping in makeshift foxholes in the desert to hide from the air strikes. When I met her, Batool had a pouch around her arm — a local potion that is wrapped in small bags and put on children’s arms to ward off the snakes and scorpions that come into the foxholes overnight.
The doctor explained that the hospital recently lost its main funding source and Government funds dried up months ago. It was a desperately sad situation for everyone there: Batool, her mother, the other children and their families, and the staff. Batool initially recovered from malnutrition with treatment, but she later died of acute watery diarrhoea. This news hits hard, and is yet another tragic example of the multiple risks facing Yemenis as a result of the conflict.
Journey northwards to Abs IDP settlement
Located in an empty desert plain just 40 km from the border with Saudi Arabia, the sprawling displaced persons settlement of Abs is home to more than 20,000 people. Many of those I met here have been displaced from destroyed villages close to the border where the fighting has been the most intense. They eke out a hard existence in this dusty and hostile terrain, with many having been here for more than two years.
Of all the settlements I have visited in the past few years in many different countries, Abs stands alone in terms of bleakness, remoteness and poverty. The hot, dry air is almost suffocating. Humanitarian aid to the camp has dwindled to a trickle as access has become more and more difficult. During our few hours in the settlement, we heard desperate pleas for the basics, for things we all take for granted: food, water and health supplies. As we left, a swirling sandstorm set in and blanketed the landscape with a piercing ferocity.
Yemen: A new dimension of crisis
My last day in Yemen was spent in Sana’a’s Al-Joumhouri Hospital, where the staff were frantically planning for the new cholera cases that had started flooding in. There were new suspected cases on gurneys in the corridors, while more urgent patients were being wheeled into already packed wards. We were shown the medical supply room in the basement, where a wall of boxes of saline and crates of bed covers were being ripped open for immediate use. Unbeknownst to me, this was the beginning of the largest global cholera outbreak in recent history.
The conflict has brought the country’s health-care system to its knees, and health workers are struggling to keep up. Basic medicines and supplies are largely unavailable, while doctors and nurses — working day and night around the clock to save every life they can — have not been paid in months.
Over the years, I have covered cholera in many different regions and understand first-hand the explosive havoc it can wreak on a population in a short space of time. Despite the dedicated medical staff in the cholera wards, and with shipments of new supplies coming in, I felt a growing sense of dread as one of the doctors showed me around. Outside the hospital, I am reminded that 14.5 million people — well over half the country’s population — do not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation. The basic services that would help prevent or treat cholera, such as clean water networks, garbage removal and basic health care, are increasingly unavailable in Yemen. Public employees have been paid erratically or not at all since October 2016, which is accelerating the collapse of the institutions meant to provide essential services.
On the morning of my departure, I sat in the Sana’a airport waiting to board a UN plane back to Amman. After almost a month on the ground and having covered some 2,500 km, I found myself with more questions than answers. How on earth can this situation be resolved? How many more will die before things improve? How can this all be happening in 2017? How will people receive the help they need to survive and rebuild their lives?
Four months later, the situation has grown worse. More than 2,100 people have died from cholera and more than 700,000 suspected cases have been reported. This horrifying epidemic has made an already daunting task for humanitarian actors even more difficult, and it has created a new, heavy layer of humanitarian suffering — something Yemenis already know far too much about.
Giles Clarke is a Getty Images Reportage photographer who focuses on conflict aftermath and international humanitarian issues. To find out more about his work, click here.
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