Saudi blockade starves Yemen of vital supplies, as bombing raids continue

No medicine, no fuel: battle to oust Houthi rebels forces hospital to close as civilian casualties mount

Emma Gatten
Sunday 20 September 2015 00:38 BST
Yemen has long been one of the poorest countries in the Middle East and the fighting has pushed 12 million people to the brink of starvation
Yemen has long been one of the poorest countries in the Middle East and the fighting has pushed 12 million people to the brink of starvation

Fuel and vital medical supplies will run out in a matter of weeks in some of the hardest-hit areas of Yemen, aid agencies have warned, amid a blockade by the Saudi-led coalition that has been conducting bombing raids over the country for months.

Since the coalition – which has been conducting airstrikes across the country since March in an attempt to oust Houthi rebel forces – imposed a “de facto” blockade, very few vessels have made their way to the country. Even before the conflict, Yemen depended on imports for 70 per cent of its fuel and 100 per cent of its medicine.

“At the moment we only have enough fuel in the north and centre of the country for the next six weeks,” Mark Kaye, the acting director of advocacy for Save the Children in Yemen, told The Independent on Sunday. As well as providing electricity for households and petrol for vehicles, “that means no fuel for hospitals, who rely on generators for their work”.

In recent days, the main paediatric hospital in the north was forced to close because of damage from the strikes and a lack of fuel and medical resources. The World Health Organisation warned this week that the country’s biggest blood-transfusion centre in the capital, Sanaa, could also be forced to close in as little as two weeks. Meanwhile, near-daily airstrikes continue to cause injuries among the civilian population.

The coalition has been conducting airstrikes across the country since March in an attempt to oust Houthi rebel forces

Yesterday, there were reports that airstrikes over Sanaa overnight on Friday had killed at least 29 people, with civilians potentially among the dead. Oman’s foreign ministry also said yesterday that the home of its ambassador in Sanaa had come under fire on Friday. Without giving details, it cited its “deep regret” and said the incident was “a clear violation of the charte rs and international norms that emphasise the inviolability of diplomatic premises.”

Sanaa resident Mohsen Faleeh called it “a terrifying night”, and that the airstrikes could be “heard in every corner of the city,” according to the Associated Press.

Mr Kaye said: “This is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. From a scale point of view, it literally is the world’s biggest crisis. There are areas that are completely destroyed where people don’t have food, don’t have water.”

The blockade was compounded in August when airstrikes hit the Red Sea port of Hodeida, the main point of entry for most goods into the north – which was controlled by the Houthis at the time of the attack. The majority of commercial vessels have since deemed the port too risky to enter. UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien condemned the attack as “unacceptable” and “in clear contravention of international humanitarian law”.

On 3 September the United Nations announced it was setting up its own verification method for vessels coming into the country – a process currently run by Saudi Arabia, too slowly many think, with an aim of stopping weapons entering Yemen. However, the UN said that it had not yet secured funding..

Yemen has long been one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, with the country depending on imports for 90 per cent of its food. The civil war has pitted the Houthi rebels and militias loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, against militias loyal to the exiled, internationally recognised, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the coalition – with the added complications of southern separatists and Sunni extremists. The fighting has pushed 12 million people to the brink of starvation.

There is a diplomatic stalemate between the two sides. The government of Mr Hadi, who fled to Saudi Arabia earlier this year, with the Houthis having taken control of the capital, has backed out of UN-brokered peace talks until the Houthi rebels agree to give up all their weapons and territory. Meanwhile, Mr Kaye said, the blockade and bombardment by the Saudi-led coalition was acting as a “war of attrition”.

“At the moment the situation is so difficult for families to survive I think the hope is that it will push people to the negotiating table,” he said.

“If you had to sum up daily life in one word: traumatic,” said Mr Kaye, who recently returned from Sanaa. “There are queues of cars and taxis [for fuel] that are four or five deep and go on for a kilometre.”He added: “Women and children are suffering day in, day out. I met a single mother with six children. Her three-year-old got sick and needed medicine, and they didn’t have enough money, so they sold their only mattress.”

Rais (whose name has been changed), 40, lost his family home in Sa’ada in the north when it was hit by coalition airstrikes. “There was nothing left. Just a pile of bricks,” he said. He now struggles to get by in a tiny rented flat in Amran in western Yemen, where his children have no choice but to drink dirty water.

The British government says it has supplied £55m to the 2015 UN Humanitarian Appeal for Yemen, but has been criticised for its support for the military intervention by the Saudi-led coalition, as well as for selling arms to the Saudi government.

Yemeni men in the capital, Sanaa, on Saturday – after Saudi-led coalition air strikes

Amnesty International has accused both sides of potentially committing war crimes. In a report last month, it documented several airstrikes on civilian buildings with, allegedly, no military sites nearby –incidents it has said should be independently investigated. In recent days, two UN officials, Adama Dieng, Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and Jennifer Welsh, Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect have “expressed alarm about allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law” by both sides, and condemned the “virtual silence of the international community about the threat to populations”.

Meanwhile, Mr Kaye said, civilian areas in the south, from where the Houthis have retreated, are laced with landmines, and the group has also been found using heavy weapons indiscriminately.

“All sides in this conflict are showing complete, unashamed contempt for civilian life,” he said. The UN estimates more than 2,000 civilians have died in the conflict so far –around half of all those killed – and more than 6,600 have been injured. Around 1.4 million people are internally displaced, and 100,000 have fled the country, but a protracted conflict could force larger numbers to flee.

“At the moment, people still feel that there is a chance that things can be fixed, Mr Kaye said, “But how long before that hope is eroded?”

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