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Aid agencies struggle to support Yemen's trapped civilians Open in fullscreen

Zak Brophy

Aid agencies struggle to support Yemen's trapped civilians

Yemen's health service is stretched to breaking point [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 April, 2015

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Civilians are increasingly falling victim to the ravages of war in Yemen and yet humanitarian agencies are struggling to get their resources to those most in need.
The UN has warned that Yemen is on the "verge of total collapse" and aid agencies operating in the country are struggling to cope.

Airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition and intense fighting between Yemen's warring factions are exacting a crushing toll on the civilian population, while a blockade on the country is stalling efforts to get medical and humanitarian resources to those most in need.

A coalition airstrike on a camp for internally displaced people in northern Yemen left at least 19 dead on Monday, and attacks by rebels and allied army units have struck at least three hospitals.
     Our first priority is medical supplies; our stocks will not last forever as the situation is going from bad to worse.
- Marie Claire Feghali, Red Crescent in Yemen

"We need to get the message to the different parties that there is international humanitarian law that applies during war to spare civilians and medical facilities and to allow safe access [for humanitarian actors] to the field," Marie Claire Feghali, spokesperson for the International Committee for the Red Crescent (ICRC) in Yemen, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

Earlier in the week Saudi Brigadier General Ahmed Asiri, the coalition spokesman, told reporters in Riyadh that naval forces were blocking ports to prevent weapons and fighters from bolstering the Houthi ranks.

However, the blockade is total and is also stopping people, medicines and food from making it into the country. 

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned on Tuesday that more medical supplies and trained health personnel were urgently needed as the violence escalated, but bringing in this essential support is "currently impossible".

A shipment of ICRC and MSF medical supplies sufficient to treat between 700 and 1,000 people was due to arrive by plane on Tuesday for distribution to hospitals across the country - but, so far, efforts to negotiate the safe arrival of the plane have not been successful.

MSF's emergency unit manager, Teresa Sancristoval, told al-Araby al-Jadeed the coalition and the government had indicated the plane should be able to enter on Thursday.

"Yemen is already a very poor country beset with problems and has not been able to recover from one violent situation coming on top of another," said ICRC's Feghali.

"Our first priority is medical supplies; our stocks will not last forever as the situation is going from bad to worse."

Residents in the crossfire

The small town of al-Dali in Lahij province has become ensnared in the conflict, despite the protestations of most of those living there.

"The Houthis have been indiscriminately shelling homes for days," local resident Mansour Zain told al-Araby al-Jadeed. "The shelling has prevented the wounded from being rushed to hospitals outside the province."

Zain said the shelling had become more intense since Saturday, and has hit cars trying to transport injured civilians, homes, mosques and schools.

The fighting has brought life in the area to a standstill as shops and schools have closed their doors. The Houthis have also set up checkpoints on most of the main roads.

Mohammad Alawi, another resident, said the situation in al-Dali was "disastrous" and most people couldn't buy even basic goods, while prices what supplies do remain have shot up.

Yemen relies on imports for more that three-quarters of its food, and suffers from chronic water shortages in many districts. The fighting and the blockade are exacerbating the scarcity and driving up prices.

Eyewitnesses from the town accuse the Houthi militants and soldiers of the 33 Armoured Brigade loyal to former premier Ali Abdullah Saleh of having taken over al-Salama private hospital in the city and turning it into a military barracks.

     It is still dangerous for us... Even getting to the hospital is very risky.
- Dr Hani Isleem, MSF

These testimonies corroborate confirmed cases of the Houthi fighters placing anti-aircraft weapons and military hardware in civilian areas in other parts of the country.

The UN's humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA, reported more than 75,000 people - 80 percent of al-Dali's population - had fled the city in the past few days.

The rapid escalation in violence has led to surging numbers of people fleeing their homes - but with the country under blockade and the conflict widening, the options for sanctuary are scarce.

"We need to focus on internally displaced people. The conditions in the country can be really extreme and people's situation can deteriorate quickly without the proper support," explained MSF's emergency unit manager, Teresa Sancristoval.

Fighting on the ground has spread, especially in the south of the country. A Yemeni Red Crescent volunteer, Omar Ali Hassam, was shot dead on Monday in the southern province of al-Dhalea while evacuating wounded people.

"We have had to use our office space, equipping the rooms with mattresses to receive the wounded," reported Dr Hani Isleem at MSF's Emergency Surgical Unit in Aden. 

Not only is there a shortage of specialised medical personnel to deal with the large numbers of wounded, but even those available are facing difficulties.

"It is still dangerous for us," said Dr Isleem. "Even getting to the hospital is very risky."

With shifting battles lines and unclear allegiances, the humanitarian workers are not always clear with whom they need to be talking - or if they have the assurances they need.

"It is difficult when you don't know who is in control of an area or what the chain of command is - and this is the prevailing situation in the whole governorate of Aden where the fighting is most intense," explained ICRC's Feghali.

The violence that is ravaging Yemen comes on the tail of years of drought and and insecurity that has left much of the population struggling to find basic health, food and water supplies.

The conflict shows little sign of abating - and yet international aid agencies are struggling to get the resources into the country they need to alleviate and forestall the sufferings of war. 

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