Yemenis Starving as Aid System Fails

22 September, 2018

In a rural area in northern Yemen, many families with starving children have nothing to eat but the leaves of a local plant. They cook the leaves in water, creating a bitter, sharp-tasting green substance.

International aid agencies have been surprised by the level of starvation in northern Yemen, as parents and children die.

Many thin children stopped by the main health center in Aslam during a recent visit by the Associated Press. Babies with all the signs of malnutrition were each weighed. Their papery skin was stretched tight over arms and legs.

A boy lies on a bed in the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sana'a, Yemen, Sept. 10, 2018.
A boy lies on a bed in the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sana'a, Yemen, Sept. 10, 2018.

At least 20 children are known to have died of starvation in the province this year, more than three years into Yemen's civil war. The real number is likely higher, since few families report it when their children die at home, officials say.

In a nearby village, a seven-month-old girl, Zahra, cries for her mother to feed her. Her mother is starving herself and is often unable to breastfeed the child.

"Since the day she was born, I have not had the money to buy her milk or buy her medicine," the mother said.

Zahra was recently treated at the heath clinic. At home, she is losing weight again. Her parents do not have the money to pay for transportation back to the doctors.

If they don't, Zahra will die, said Mekkiya Mahdi, the head of the clinic.

"We are in the 21st century, but this is what the war did to us," she said. Mahdi added that after she visits nearby villages and sees people eating the green, leafy paste, "I go home and I can't put food in my mouth."

The hunger in Aslam is a sign of problems in an international aid system that is already low on supplies and under pressure from local officials.

Yet foreign aid is the only thing stopping widespread death from starvation in Yemen.

The conditions in Aslam may also show that the aid agencies' warnings are coming true: In an unending war, the spread of starvation is greater than the efforts to keep people alive.

When the Associated Press (AP) asked United Nations agencies about the situation in Aslam, they expressed surprise. To find out the reason why food was not getting to the needy families, aid groups launched an investigation, a top aid official told the AP.

In order to help immediately, the official said, aid agencies are sending over 10,000 food containers to the area. The official did not give his name because of the danger of working in the middle of a war.

UNICEF Resident Representative Meritxell Relano said the organization is increasing its mobile teams from three to four and transporting people to the health clinics.

In the first six months of 2018, Hajjah province, including Aslam village, had 17,000 cases of extreme malnutrition. That number is higher than any other year, said Walid al-Shamshan, head of nutrition at the province's Health Ministry.

Malnourished children who are treated often go back to villages with no food and bad water. Then they return to clinics in worse condition or they die.

Deaths happens in these villages, where people can't reach healthcare teams, al-Shamshan said.

The civil war in Yemen has wrecked the country's ability to feed its people.

The war is between Shiite Muslim rebels known as Houthis, who hold the north, and a Saudi-led coalition, armed and helped by the United States. The coalition has tried to bomb the rebels into submission with an air campaign in support of Yemeni government forces.

Around 2.9 million women and children are acutely malnourished. Another 400,000 children with extreme malnourishment are fighting for their lives.

Nearly 8.4 million of Yemen's 29 million people would starve without food aid, one-fourth more than last year, the U.N. estimates.

That number is likely to rise by another 3.5 million because of the falling value of Yemen's money, which leaves people unable to buy food, the U.N. warned.

To date, the U.N. and its partners have only received about 65 percent of the $3 billion they requested for a humanitarian campaign in 2018.

Aid workers are also worried about an attack by Saudi-led forces on the Houthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeida. Most of the food aid comes through that city.

If the port is closed, the number of extremely malnourished children could increase a lot, said Tamer Kirolos, Yemen country director for the aid group Save the Children.

Aslam is one of Yemen's poorest areas, with many people living cut off from the rest of the population in the high mountains. It is home to between 75,000 and 106,000 people.

"Aslam is just another picture of Somalia," said Saleh al Faqih, a worker in a mobile Healthy Ministry center.

Aslam's main health center has no child care specialists and no electricity. There is no fuel to power generating equipment. Fathers appeal to strangers in the nearby market for 300 riyals — around 50 U.S. cents — to buy a diaper for their child going into the center.

There appeared to be many reasons why aid was not reaching some of the starving. Most aid goes to displaced persons and not to those still living in their home village, said Azma Ali, a worker with the World Food Program.

Houthi rebel officials force international agencies and their Yemeni partners to use aid lists provided by local officials.

Critics accuse those officials of favoritism. They say the people of Aslam suffer from discrimination because they have a darker skin than other Yemenis and usually work in simple jobs.

Some people said officials demand money to get on food lists. U.N. agencies do not have enough workers to watch how the food is given out.

I'm Susan Shand. And I'm Dorothy Gundy.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for VOA Learning English. The editor was George Grow.

Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

leaves – n. the flat and typically green parts of a plant

submission – n. the act of accepting the authority or control of someone else

acute – adj. very dangerous

diaper – n. a cloth worn by a baby

generatingadj. of or relating to the production or manufacture of something

favoritismn. the custom of treating some people better than others

mobile adj. able to move from one place to another