Yemen: The gift of clean water . . . and dignity

The TimesThe Yemeni villagers, who had never seen warplanes before, peered at the night sky thinking the shadows on the horizon sounded like thunder, and the explosions were lightning.

Unfamiliar with the thud of bombs, no one fled when the first airstrikes clawed out chunks of earth in the distance. It was only when the missiles and shelling drew closer — and the deafening metallic crunch tore open houses — that people grabbed whatever they could and ran.

“We heard a noise, the sound of terror, a sound we had never heard before . . . It made everything tumble, and threw people off their chairs,” said Khayriyyah Bakhet Moussa, whose husband was away in Saudi Arabia on the night her house was bombed.

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She lived in Haradh, an area northwest of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, within the territory controlled by the Houthi rebel group that ousted President Hadi in March 2015. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies launched a bombing campaign to reinstate their ally, prompting a complex proxy war which, after 20 months, has killed more 10,000 people. The villagers, stuck in the middle, had no idea what was happening.

“We didn’t know what war was. We had never witnessed it before. We heard wailing and screaming until sunrise. In the morning I turned on the television and I heard ‘war in Yemen’, I hope you never see what we saw,” she added, crying.

The only sounds were women and children screaming and the relentless bombardment. Dogs, cattle and half-dressed people ran through the streets in terror, she said. Men searched in vain for their wives and children.

For three days, Mrs Moussa sat on the floor clutching her nephews and nieces, unsure what to do, as the floor lurched beneath her feet and objects thrown up by the airstrikes rammed into the side of their home.

They fled to the nearby Ashea’ab mountains briefly, where many people had taken refuge in caves. She finally reached the comparative safety of Bani Qais, but there the family’s problems worsened.

“The suffering and hunger follows us when the sun comes up,” she said of life as an internally displaced person (IDP). Disease, she added, also tracked the refugees as they went. Drinking from contaminated wells, cholera and dysentery quickly spread around the camps.

Living in tents, they would beg for yoghurt and bread from nearby villages. Then she met two Care International workers, whose work The Times is asking its readers to support this year.

“We began to relax when they were with us. We started to settle down. Care gave us water purifiers, they gave us food, dignity packages and soap, they gave us everything,” she said. The teams also handed out mattresses, cooking pots and plastic sheeting.

At least 3.2 million people have fled their homes, according to the UN. As the land, sea and air borders are closed, refugees cannot leave the country, putting huge pressure on the impoverished communities that are forced to host them.

Most of the displaced leave their homes with nothing but the clothes they are wearing and so now struggle through freezing weather in caves, tents or bombed-out buildings, waiting for the war to end.

Several of those who fled the fighting told The Times they were forced to sell their cars, belongings and even clothes to pay for food or medicine.

Hasha Yahya Ali Al-Sufi, a mother of five who comes from Saada, one of the areas worst hit by airstrikes, said she did not even have time to pick up the bodies of her seven relatives who died in the air raid which blew up their home.

“We left them for the animals,” she said from the same displacement camp as Mrs Moussa. “We left with nothing.” The conflict in the Gulf’s poorest country has sparked the world’s largest humanitarian crisis in terms of numbers. An estimated 19 million people, the majority of them displaced, are relying on aid to survive. Without help from groups like Care International, many more would die.

This year Care International has already fed over a million people, and handed out more than 30,000 hygiene packs to fight disease. At least 16,000 women have received dignity parcels, containing essentials from sanitary towels to nappies.

Yemen already suffered from the most severe water shortages in the region but after 20 months of fighting, thousands are thought to be dying from water-borne diseases or thirst. Care International employs and trains people to rehabilitate putrid wells and then run solar-powered water pumps.

The project, which has helped more than 130,000 people, has eliminated the dangerous and backbreaking work for women and girls, some of whom have died hauling water in jerrycans from 30-metre deep wells.

One of the most powerful schemes – cash for work – ensures families are not reliant on handouts.

“Honestly, when we first came to this camp, people gave us donations, we sat on the ground and begged for food and then we got the opportunity to work, to make a bit of income,” said Fares Bis, a disabled refugee who fled the Red Sea port of Hodeidah when his house was flattened. He described his family running through streets strewn with bodies and hiding under trees and in the mountains when the airstrikes wiped out their home, livestock and lands.

They then walked on foot to an IDP camp in Bani Qais, where Care International provided food, cash transfers, work and even wood to build a small house. “We didn’t have food, or jobs to provide for the house and family. And now thank God Care came along and helped us.”

Care International identifies both skilled and unskilled labourers mainly from the displaced communities to carry out work to improve the infrastructure of the area, like rebuilding schools, rehabilitating roads and fixing water systems.

The charity trains them and then pays them $98 a month, matching local salaries and allowing them to seek employment elsewhere with their new skills once the project is over. Unusually for Yemen, women make up a quarter of the cash-for-work workforce. The majority of IDPs are women, looking after the children and supporting their households on their own.

Care International staff say that conflict has had a more immediate and extreme impact on Yemen than other countries in the Middle East because it was already the poorest state in the region.

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Photo: Care international