The weight of war
On the front lines in Yemen, home to the world’s worst hunger crisis
When I came home after a recent mission to Yemen, I slammed my car door so hard that the window came out of alignment. Opening and closing the heavy doors of armored vehicles, wearing body armor and all of the other safety precautions you need to take when working in a war zone adds weight and slows everything down.
Furthermore, much of Yemen sits somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 meters above sea level. Until you get used to the altitude, your blood cells are deprived of oxygen and your body works harder than usual just to move. You feel like you are underwater, the resistance strong enough that your body feels like it is in slow motion. When you return to near sea level, the combination of those blood cells having carried extra oxygen and your muscles having lifted excess weight from the protective gear makes you feel like superman — and that’s why my car needed to go to the mechanic.
But it isn’t just the added weight that slows you down in Yemen.
Before humanitarians can move anywhere in the country, both sides of the conflict must agree on when and where you can go. This is monitored by radio communications and from above the ground via the large numbers on the roofs of our vehicles. These numbers identify vehicles with clearance to move within the country. Then your actual movement is slowed by the destroyed roads and bridges, checkpoints and traffic.
Yemen is currently the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. More than three years of conflict have pushed the country to the brink of famine. Nearly 18 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from and more than eight million of them live in extreme hunger. They are dependent entirely on food assistance from humanitarian organizations like the World Food Programme (WFP).
The inability for humanitarian organizations like WFP to go where people are in need when they are in need is one of the greatest obstacles we face when working in war zones. It’s all about access, and if you can’t get food to people who can’t flee, have lost their homes, had their fields and markets destroyed, then they might starve.
Saada is a governorate around 2,000 meters up, along the border with Saudi Arabia. It’s the Houthi heartland and Yemen’s fruit basket where apples and pomegranates are grown. But as I traveled through the area, I didn’t see a single bridge intact. If farmers don’t have fuel or roads to get produce to market, then it’s hunger that grows. Today, Saada has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the country.
The capital of Saada is called Sa’dah city. It has been severely damaged in the fighting. It reminded me of Sarajevo during the siege. Homes, markets and municipal buildings have been reduced to rubble.
Imagine being a fisherman used to the freedom and expanse of the sea. The last place you would want to find yourself would be Sa’dah city. But this is where I met Adel Abdullah, an energetic 43-year-old fisherman from the port city of Hodeidah.
I asked him what he was doing here literally like a fish out of water. He explained that due to the fighting he was no longer able to go to sea. When the violence intensified there was no choice but to flee with his extended family of 11 people. They sold everything they had to finance the journey and are now destitute living in makeshift shelters in a trash-strewn empty lot. The women in his family now beg on the streets to help support the family.
If the war stops they will go home to Hodeidah, he told me. “The women are scared to death. Every hour we see a plane. I’m not lying, all we want is peace and safety,” he says.
When I arrived in Hodeidah a few days later, I understood why Adel and his family had fled. The normally bustling port city was eerily quiet except for the sound of explosions. Around half the population had escaped. Those who remained were scared and grew increasingly desperate as they waited for what was expected to be an imminent battle for control of the city and its port.
Hodeidah port is Yemen’s lifeline. Even in the best of times, Yemen imported 90% of its food. The fuel needed for transport also comes through Hodeidah. Fighting, however, has damaged warehouses, cranes and other infrastructure needed to unload ships.
The port was functioning the day I visited. It has to stay open because without humanitarian and commercial access to it, the people of Yemen would starve.
As always, it’s the children who shoulder the greatest burden. They must survive the violence and destruction of war as well as inevitably rebuild society when the fighting has stopped. That’s a heavy load to carry, but it doesn’t stop kids like 13-year-old Hussien from dreaming of becoming a doctor. Yemen certainly needs a new generation of doctors but until there is peace, the weight of hunger will keep dreams like Hussien’s out of reach.
Learn more about WFP in Yemen.