Gifts of hope for starving children of Yemen

The Times

Mohamed Youssef faced an impossible choice: pay to get his baby, Wadad, to hospital to treat her dysentery, or buy milk formula to stop her starving to death.

He could not afford both so decided to put everything he had into getting the emaciated newborn to one of the few medical centres left in Yemen. She died within hours.

Mohamed, 25, and his wife, Zahra, had been trying for a baby for five years. When she became pregnant he felt like his prayers had been answered — but life in a war zone changed all that.

The conflict, which began in March last year, has left 7 million people in Yemen starving and Mohamed and Zahra are no different. They live in Hajjah, 70 miles northwest of Sanaa, in an area with one of highest starvation rates in the country. As they struggled to survive airstrikes, cholera and dysentery, their baby was sick from the minute she was born. Zahra was too weak to breast-feed.

Crippling fuel shortages meant that a short journey to hospital cost about £65: several months’ salary for someone like Mohamed, a caretaker who said that he had not been paid since the start of the war. By the time he had begged the fare from his neighbours, his daughter was already too ill. She was three months old when she died.

Mohamed said grimly that he should have, somehow, saved the money. “She was born ill and suffered until the moment she passed away. In Yemen if your child is sick there is no transportation to get her to hospital, people do not have the money to pay for treatment. If the baby doesn’t breast-feed, you can’t get food. We are born like this and die like this,” he said.

His wife is pregnant again, but instead of celebrating Mohamed was terrified of going through the same loss. Then he was introduced to Care International. The charity, which The Times is supporting in this year’s Christmas appeal, has handed life-saving monthly food parcels to more than 8,400 people in Hajjah and Amran this year.

“Care gives people necessities they couldn’t obtain before. We used to drink from the wells where the dogs did. Now we have a water purifier. Now we have food, now we have a chance,” Mohamed said.

Yemen imports 90 per cent of its food and was already suffering a nutrition crisis before the war, which began when Iranian-backed Houthi rebels ousted President Hadi, prompting Yemen’s allies in the Gulf to start a bombing campaign to reinstate him. The Saudi-led coalition has been accused of implementing a land, sea and air blockade on Houthi-held areas, halting supplies. The Houthis, meanwhile, are accused of blocking aid deliveries and 19 million people are surviving on aid handouts.

Prices are rocketing, so the poorest are starving to death. Nine of the country’s 21 governorates, including Hajjah, are one step from famine.

Children like Mohamed’s daughter are the hardest hit. According to Unicef, 2.2 million minors are acutely malnourished and in need of care, with at least 462,000 suffering from severe acute malnutrition and at risk of death.

The children in Hajjah often have red streaks in their hair, a telltale sign of malnutrition. Care International’s team aims to provide food to sustain families so that they never need to visit hospital.

The charity’s boxes or food vouchers, valued at £80 for the month, are beyond what people such as Mohamed would ever be able to buy and contain sugar, rice, flour, cooking oil, tea, tuna and canned beans. The food and baby milk is distributed by lorries travelling to the hardest-hit areas.

“Families rely on us. Without our boxes they would be starving,” said Bushra al-Dukhainah, a humanitarian co-ordinator in Hajjah and Amran.

The food crisis is forcing many people to return to dangerous areas they once fled. Ansam Saif Owais, 29, a mother of six, ran away from her village in al-Mahbesha, Hajjah, a few months ago, but came back because there was no food in the displacement camps. “We faced bombings from aircrafts, from cannons, everything fell on us, the noise was defeating,” she said, clutching her youngest, a toddler. “I was afraid of the dark, the war, sickness. And then we started dying of hunger.”

When her neighbour’s house was flattened in airstrikes she fled again and now lives in makeshift tents sculpted out of tree trunks and beige canvases.

Epidemics of cholera and dysentery have spread unchecked in Yemen, with 10,000 suspected cases of cholera. One child dies every ten minutes from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, malnutrition and respiratory tract infections, according to the UN.

Care International has provided 44,000 people with water filters this year and handed out more than 46,000 hygiene kits. Ansam said that its measures helped to keep her family alive. “When Care came along everything was different. They gave us these water containers, they helped us prosper, they gave us food, mattresses,” she said. “Without them we had no hope.”

Donations to Care International UK are being matched by the global law firm Hogan Lovells

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Photo: Care International