Today we are sharing a piece written by Rima Kamal, the Communication Coordinator and Spokesperson at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yemen. She is a humanitarian professional with more than 10 years of experience in emergency and post recovery environments, with a focus on the Middle East. This piece was originally published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
Originally published on 13 November 2015
More than seven months into the crisis in Yemen, the situation across the country is catastrophic. All aspects of life have been affected and no family has remained untouched. Rima Kamal, Head of Communication for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yemen, gives Australian Outlook a glimpse into a typical week responding to the serious humanitarian consequences of this ongoing conflict.
A destructive tropical cyclone made landfall in Yemen this past week. As if the people of Yemen didn’t have enough to deal with already. Seven months of airstrikes and intense ground fighting have already brought on the loss of loved ones as well as constant fears for their personal safety and that of their children. On average 30 people are killed in Yemen every day and 180 injured. In total, more than 5,000 people have been killed to date and close to 30,000 injured. Half of them are believed to be civilians. Around 1.4 million people have reportedly had to flee their homes and are now displaced. The disrespect of the civilian population is extremely worrisome. Hostilities are increasingly taking place in densely populated areas, involving weapons that are designed for the open battlefield, which is leading to extensive damage of civilian infrastructure, and high casualties.
The people of Yemen are suffering on multiple fronts. With the start of the hostilities, import restrictions on goods and services were imposed. To add salt to the wound, movement of goods across the country was also restricted, especially in areas under siege. As a result, people are suffering from acute shortages of the basic things most of us take for granted like water, food, electricity, gas and fuel. During a recent encounter in the field, a Yemeni father-of-five said to me: ‘I never thought I would struggle to bring food to the table. I sometimes wish an airstrike or a shell would hit our home and end our misery. It would be a quick death. Living this type of life, you die a million times over every day.’
We continue to call on all those taking part in the fighting to ensure that all necessary measures are taken to lift the restriction of movement of essential goods into and within Yemen, and to respect the rules that protect civilians and civilian property.
On my way to the printer, I lock eyes with the portrait of one of my colleagues who was killed in Amran governorate in September of this year on his way back to Sana’a. His portrait, along with that of my other colleague who was killed with him, is a stark reminder of the price humanitarians have to pay sometimes. In August of this year, our offices in the southern city of Aden were also attacked by armed gunmen. My colleagues were luckily physically unharmed, but vehicles, cash and equipment were stolen.
Working in a conflict zone, you have to strike a careful balance between the pressing needs of the population and the safety of your staff. We operate in conflict zones around the world. Taking a number of calculated risks is an inherent part of the job. Yet, the risks in Yemen are higher than those of a typical ICRC mission. Moving humanitarian assistance from one city to another can be extremely cumbersome and require days of negotiations ahead. At times, we have to carry out twenty phone calls to various sides to secure some sort of safety guarantees for our teams prior. And those safety guarantees do not always translate into reality once our teams are in the field.
Due to the intensity of the hostilities and the polarisation of the positions, principled humanitarian action is increasingly being challenged by the parties, who seek to influence where and to whom aid is distributed. We are often having to engage in long negotiations to adhere to our neutral, impartial approach. And yet, we are often accused of taking sides. It is extremely frustrating at times. Humanitarian organisations must be allowed to carry out their activities in an independent and impartial manner without excessive hurdles and lengthy administrative procedures. Humanitarian workers must also be unconditionally protected and respected at all times. A total of six volunteers from the Yemeni Red Crescent Society have died while carrying out their humanitarian duties since the conflict began in March this year. Coupled with the two ICRC colleagues we lost in September, that’s eight. An average of one colleague a month. That’s unacceptable.
A colleague who works as the health coordinator of the ICRC in Yemen passes by my office to vent some of her frustrations. She has been working really hard, along with our management, to try and secure a delivery of urgently needed medical supplies to the city of Taiz, to no avail. For close to seven weeks now, the ICRC has been repeatedly requesting those taking part in the fighting in the city to allow for the entry of the medical supplies.
The health-care sector in Yemen has been particularly impacted by the ongoing conflict, with nearly 25 percent of health infrastructure reportedly destroyed. Hospitals across the country are also suffering shortages of medical and surgical supplies as well as severe fuel shortages and chronic power cuts. In the worst affected areas, the health-care sector has been completely crippled. For example, in Taiz, half of the hospitals are closed and there are streams of wounded people desperate for treatment.
Fuel, which has become a rare commodity, is essential for the circle of life. The entire health-care system is dependent on fuel. An ambulance needs fuel to pick up an injured patient. The hospital to which he will be admitted needs fuel to run its generator and to turn on vital surgical equipment to operate on him. The respirator he will thereafter be connected to needs power and fuel. One doctor I spoke to at a leading hospital in Taiz told me: ‘The conflict has compromised the quality of medical care of our patients. I have ten patients at the Intensive Care Unit, out of which only three are connected to a mechanical ventilator, although all of them desperately need it. Pain killers such as morphine are a luxury afforded to a handful of our gravely injured patients only.’
Water is a basic necessity most of us take for granted. As I top up my glass with water, I think of all those I saw earlier today lined up to fill their jerry cans from a truck selling clean drinking water. Even before the start of hostilities this year, Yemen was facing serious water shortages and an imminent water crisis. The reasons are varied: high population growth, the extensive growing of Qat (drug-like plant that is chewed by Yemenis) as well as a lack of adherence to agricultural development policies. Water scarcity is accordingly seen as one of the nation’s number one economic, health and national security issues. It’s predicted that by 2025, Sana’a, the capital, will have no more water.
With the start of the hostilities, local water and sanitation corporations struggled to continue pumping water to households in the absence of both power and fuel. As the fighting intensified, water infrastructure was destroyed in a number of areas, at times cutting off entire communities from water.
Our teams have been carrying out urgent repairs of damaged water infrastructure, as well as maintenance of water and sanitation infrastructure, to avoid the collapse of the water and sewage system. Clean drinking water is also being provided to those most in need through various water distribution points.
Scrolling through our delegation’s Facebook page, I come across numerous comments that call upon us to do more and that accuse us of not doing enough. I understand the frustration. People are angry, they feel alone, let down and in need. But no matter how much we do, we can’t feed all Yemenis nor provide for the health-care needs of their country. With most of the population directly or indirectly affected, the scale of the crisis in Yemen is staggering, and the humanitarian response insufficient. What international and local humanitarian agencies are able to do remains a drop in the ocean when looking at the overall needs of the population. Political efforts must be exerted to bring an end to the crisis in Yemen. Aid will not solve the crisis. Humanitarian agencies can’t feed more than 15 million Yemenis and provide for their needs.
In spite of the all the constraints we face and the challenges we navigate our way around, I take pride in knowing that we have been able bring relief to some of the most vulnerable. More than two million Yemenis have benefited from our food and water programs so far this year. We also continue to support hospitals and health structures around Yemen through donations of urgent medical supplies, as well as surgical support and training. It is important not to lose faith in humanity or in the difference each one of us can make. We may not be able to stop this conflict, but we are definitely able to touch people’s lives and make a difference to some. And that’s what keeps us going.