Medics in Yemen: As we fight to help the sick and injured, delays can cost lives
By: Giorgio Trombatore, Yemen Country Director, International Medical Corps
The devastation wrought by the civil war slows our efforts to help those suffering in a country scarred by years of conflict.
For a country that carries the deep scars of years of vicious conflict, where events can develop by the minute, it is often easy to feel that nothing changes very fast. The celebration of Mouloud brings rare moments of joy, celebration and a vivid and vibrant green to the streets of Sana’a. Banners, flags and vehicles are daubed in the intense color, marking the birthday of the prophet Muhammad and providing a tangible milestone for the passing of time.
We nose our vehicle towards the first checkpoint on our journey south out of Sana’a on a road that will take us to Aden — a routine journey in order to monitor the work of International Medical Corps teams across the region. The state of the country makes such trips both tense and dangerous but also laborious and dogged by administrative hurdles — a bizarre combination, and one that makes traveling so very slow.
This arduous pace is clear when we reach the main checkpoint of Yasleh in the Bilad al-Roos district, the queues swelled by visitors to the country’s capital. A soldier gives a blase wave of his machine gun as he tells us to wait for official wheels to turn.
“Go sit in the restaurant. We will call you when your pass is ready,” he says, as he lights a cigarette with his free hand.
This is standard, and is going take time. I sit in a plastic chair and watch merry Yemenis arriving from all districts. Most have clearly come from the villages and districts around Sana’a. Many wear military uniforms and almost all carry a Kalashnikov.
Ahead of us are the towns of Ibb, Taiz, Lahij and Aden, notorious because of the violence that has been taking place there. In December alone, the latest attack in Aden saw a bomb kill 49 Yemeni soldiers in front of the al-Sulban military base, while subsequent fighting pushed the toll higher each day.
A wave by my logistics coordinator indicates that we have the green light to proceed, after a call from the depths of the country’s national security apparatus convinces the security guard to open the door to Ibb to us.
The scenery is beautiful, and the chance to see it is one of the best parts of my work. We pass mountains, rolling countryside and unique old houses built of rough stone — common in Yemen but rare anywhere else. It is a privilege to explore areas that most will never see, which even TV images rarely capture.
But we need to slow down as we pass craters left by bomb blasts, creep past rubbish bags ignored for months, and navigate the rubble of devastated buildings. In every area here, the war has taken lives, ruined basic infrastructure and stolen possessions.
As the hours pass, many soldiers manning the regular checkpoints can barely speak, their mouths full of the local amphetamine-like stimulant, khat, which causes one cheek to blow up like a small balloon. Many are as young as 13, all are skinny and all have the Arabic quotes denoting their role as “helpers of Allah” on the butts of their assault rifles.
Our progress is slow, and helps to explain the problems our mobile medical teams face as they struggle to reach our health facilities, which are under constant pressure. In Ibb, many of those who have been forced from their homes wait for the fighting to end, desperate for food, shelter and medical support.
We stop for a night, preparing to leave again at first light. From there, we head towards the Al Dhale district, passing more and more checkpoints — some small, some formal, some manned by soldiers wearing Cossack-style greatcoats — some just a few hundred metres from the last. We’re nearing the frontline, and the nervous tension mounts.
The same gestures are repeated over and over, the same questions are asked and hours are lost waiting for phone calls from Sana’a to vouch for us and permit us further passage. The final checkpoint of the north is much like all the rest, then suddenly new groups are manning the checkpoints in the south — little in the way of fuss, but bringing new questions.
“Any Russians or Chinese? Are any of you Russian or Chinese?” a soldier screams, before collapsing into hysterical laughter and receiving the applause of his colleagues. Having swapped cars to travel with our Yemen-south team, we drive off, leaving the soldiers behind in giggles.
It is afternoon when we reach Aden, and the incredible blue of the sea welcomes us to the city. It reminds me of the sea of green we left in Sana’a, and it is stunning in its beauty. We travel to a heavily guarded area on top of a hill known to locals as al-Maashiq and an amazing panorama unfolds; pristine beaches and a clear sky provide a feeling of peace and beauty — so elusive in this devastated land.
We have come to sit with the prime minister of Yemen, Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, and the governor of the local area.
We are here to present to the authorities the challenges for humanitarian workers in such contexts, the impact of the security situation on the teams who are dedicated to helping the most vulnerable, and the need for support to let us carry out the work our donors have charged us with completing.
It goes well, or so I think, and my team departs, hopeful that some impact has been made. As we return to our office in the city, we pass what should be happy scenes of people shopping around the main road of Queen Arwa, families playing with young children and old men playing chess on the streets — but all amid the stark remains of buildings burned and dark, their contents looted. Armed fighters idle in the shadows, alert, on edge and menacing.
Amid the beauty and busyness of lives being lived, at our hospitals and medical clinics our staff see young people queuing up for help with shocking war-related injuries. Some come to us almost completely burned from head to toe, while mothers bring young children who are severely malnourished and on the edge of death.
A dark past looms over a shaky present, where frontlines shift, loyalties change and alliances are made and broken — and in the middle, millions of people try to live their lives as best they can. There is no end in sight, and the fear is that even the most basic services supporting these people are finally set to collapse.
In such a fluid environment, speed is often the difference between life and death. Speed is being denied to humanitarian organizations like ours, a denial that makes a hard job all the harder for my teams of dedicated people. Each time I wait at a checkpoint, I consider it part and parcel of life in this most chaotic and dangerous of places. Each time I try to put out of my mind the true cost of such delays — a cost that can be measured in terms of lives lost rather than minutes wasted.