At the expense of the Yemeni people

After more than three years of violent conflict, Yemen′s public and health sector is on the brink of collapse. While the warring factions are comfortable with the state of affairs, much of the population faces starvation and disease. Wafa′a Alsaidy, co-ordinator of the Yemen mission of Medecins du Monde (MdM) talks to Kai Schnier

By Kai Schnier

Ms. Alsaidy, since 2015 Yemen is in the grip of a violent civil war, with forces of the armed Houthi movement occupying Sana′a in the north and a coalition led by Saudi Arabia supporting the government forces of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in the south. Today, 8 million Yemenis are in risk of starvation, 2 million people are internally displaced. Despite being one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of our time, however, the conflict is still largely invisible in international news. Why?

Wafa′a Alsaidy: The problem of under-reporting on the crisis in Yemen is twofold. The first issue is the fact that Yemenis have no real way of communicating their plight internationally and are not represented in Europe or elsewhere. Whereas in the case of Syria, for example, there is a growing refugee community in the West that has the means to express itself – also because Syria had a functional educational system before the war – the situation in Yemen is quite different. Here, there was a lack of internationalisation and education even before the conflict. The second issue is the lack of access. All embassies in the two major Yemeni cities Sana′a and Aden are closed. The only way for international journalists to enter the country is via United Nations flights. And even then the authorities on the ground – from both sides of the conflict– often delay the process indefinitely.

As access to the country becomes increasingly difficult, NGOs and aid organisations like Medecins du Monde (MdM), whom you represent, are among the last remaining international actors in Yemen. You live and work in Houthi-controlled Sana′a. What is the situation there right now?

Alsaidy: Life in the city is becoming increasingly more precarious and unpredictable for the people here. At the beginning of the conflict, the bombing raids of the Saudi-led coalition, which backs President Hadi, focused on Houthi military camps and also took place at specific times. Now they have become more erratic. Targeting a funeral in Sana′a in 2016, the coalition killed more than 150 people.

Wafa′a Alsaidy, co-ordinator of Medecins du Monde in Yemen (Skype interview screengrab)
Flexing their muscles with impunity: decision-makers on all sides now occupy positions that they could never have reached via a democratic, institutional process. Similarly, outside forces like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are content to control the coastal regions and ports, never venturing too far inland. According to Wafa′a Alsaidy, no-one has the slightest interest in ending the conflict

A while back, a fuel station in the middle of a civilian area was attacked. Once, a bomb struck so close to my house that the windows shattered. Basically, collateral damage seems to play an ever smaller role in military considerations as the war goes on.

At the same time, of course, the economic situation has become more and more critical. The Houthi government has, for example, long stopped paying salaries to civil and public servants.

How does that affect day-to-day life for the people in Yemen in general and in Sana′a specifically?

Alsaidy: Most importantly, the local populations on both sides of the conflict are unable to afford basic life commodities anymore. Since the beginning of the war, food and fuel prices have skyrocketed. At the same time, employment opportunities have become increasingly rare. During Ramadan, which just ended, you would normally see busy shops and congested streets in Sana′a.

This time around, the stores were almost empty as there is simply no way for people to afford even the most basic commodities. The situation is dire in most respects. Take the educational sector: everyday at 10 a.m. there are lots of kids in the streets, wearing school uniforms. But they don′t have anywhere to go, as most teachers do not work a full day due to irregular and unfulfilled salary payments. The country′s institutional and economic infrastructure is nearing collapse.

That is especially true for the health sector. Currently, it is estimated that around 16 million Yemenis don′t have access to proper healthcare. What can a humanitarian organisation like MdM do to help?

Alsaidy: Right now our primary task is to prevent the imminent breakdown of important health infrastructure. Only around 50 percent of the health sector in Yemen is operational at the moment. There is no money for staff, instruments and drugs. Thus, we are trying to assist governmental agencies by supporting 13 health centres and hospitals around the country. We import drugs via our headquarters in Paris to our base in Djibouti, then on to Sana′a; we also assist locally with consultations and expertise. For us, a main concern is the access of rural populations to medical care. In recent years, if women were pregnant in the villages around Sana′a, for example, they had to travel five hours to receive professional assistance. Many young women and children died in the process. Two weeks ago, we managed to support a rural hospital outside the city in the setting-up of an operation room where C-sections can now be performed. Small steps of course, but small steps are better than no steps at all.As well as the issues you have already outlined, Yemen also still faces the world′s biggest outbreak of cholera in recorded history …

Alsaidy: The cholera outbreak was certainly one of the most pressing issues last year, with more than one million people contracting the disease by the end of 2017. In our areas of influence around Sana′a we were able to contain it, however, and there has been a decline in cases over the past months. There were also several vaccination campaigns in co-ordination with UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) that helped to mitigate the crisis. That goes to show that our presence here can go a long way.

Still, your work on the ground is probably limited by the conflict around you …

Alsaidy: Not only by the conflict itself, but also by the surrounding circumstances. For example, one of the biggest issues we face in our work today is the ongoing blockade of Yemeni ports by Saudi-led coalition forces. Officially, the blockade ended a while back. Practically, however, access to the Hodeidah port – one of the most important harbours of the country – is still controlled via the sea. We need to import drugs from France to Yemen, because the quality of the local drugs cannot be ensured. But with important supply routes cut off and many flights, even UN flights, being delayed for inspection purposes, the medicine is often exposed to extreme temperatures for weeks at a time. The same difficulties exist not only with respect to commodities, but also to personnel. Many of our staffers spend three months in our base in Djibouti before receiving their visas to enter the country.  In the end, that primarily jeopardises the people we are trying to care for.

From your perspective as a MdM-representative: what would need to happen for the situation on the ground to improve in Yemen?

Alsaidy: The only thing that would go some way towards resolving this crisis is outside pressure by international actors. The conflict is already far too complicated to be resolved from the inside. You have the Houthi government in the north, the Saudi-led coalition supporting President Hadi in the south, a number of secessionist movements, Iran, the USA and the United Arab Emirates scheming in the background …

… as well as al-Qaida and IS taking hold in some regions.

Alsaidy: That as well. So, counting on an internal resolution of the conflict would be naive. In fact, inside of Yemen, the decision-makers on all sides seem to be more or less comfortable with the state of affairs. They now occupy positions that they could never have reached via a democratic, institutional process. Similarly, outside forces like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are content to control economically viable regions with access to gas and oil supplies. Their aim is to control coastal regions and ports, but never venture too far inland. As a result, the warring factions have not the slightest interest in ending the conflict. Yemen is the backyard in which they can quarrel and flex their muscles with impunity.

Do you believe the United Nations could change that?

Alsaidy: It does seem, at least, that international pressure, if applied correctly, can yield viable results. When the land, sea and air blockade of Yemen was tightened by Saudi Arabia and its allies in late 2017, the UN strongly condemned this move because of its humanitarian consequences. The most strict restrictions were then promptly repealed by the coalition. We would need a similar push by the UN with regards to the conflict as a whole. Especially for an organisation like ours, peace is one of the most important pre-conditions for our work. No humanitarian aid is a substitute for peace: without peace, we are forced to address only the most immediate issues and are unable to build any lasting structures.

Interview conducted by Kai Schnier

© 2018

Wafa′a Alsaidy co-ordinates the Yemen mission of Medecins du Monde (MdM) and lives in Sana′a.