Yemen slides deeper into humanitarian crisis amid Saudi-led airstrikes

In Yemen, punishing airstrikes by Saudi-led coalition and fighting with rebels creating humanitarian crisis

Mohammed Shaalan was looking for work in the agricultural fields on the outskirts of Yemen’s capital this week when warplanes with a Saudi-led coalition started pounding a nearby rebel-held military base.

He raced home to find that the roof of his mud and stone house had collapsed. Neighbors helped him claw through the rubble, pulling a bloodied infant son to safety. But his wife, mother and two other boys were dead.

Shaalan, 42, cursed Saudi Arabia and leaders of all political stripes in Yemen who he said have dragged the Arab world’s poorest country into another ruinous conflict.

“We were already eking out a living before this war,” said Shaalan, a construction worker by trade. “Now I have nothing. I am trying to be patient and keep faith, but if the rest of my family is starving I would kill to get them food.”

International aid agencies warned this week of an unfolding humanitarian disaster in Yemen, where Shiite Muslim rebels known as Houthis have taken over much of the country and driven President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi into exile.

The World Health Organization said Wednesday that more than 640 people have been killed and 2,200 injured since March 19, a week before a coalition of mostly Arab countries began an air campaign against the Houthis and allies in the military still loyal to Hadi's predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was deposed in 2012. More than 100,000 people have fled their homes.

Families caught in the fighting can’t venture outside to look for food and medical care, said Marie Claire Feghali, spokeswoman for the International Committee for the Red Cross in Yemen. Hospitals are overwhelmed with casualties and running out of crucial supplies. Some doctors haven’t been able to go home in days. Markets are closed, and there are shortages of fuel, water and power.

An air and naval blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition to prevent supplies from reaching the insurgents has delayed the arrival of desperately needed aid and surgical personnel. A boat carrying medical supplies docked Wednesday in the southern port city of Aden, the first in two weeks of airstrikes, said the international aid agency Doctors Without Borders.

A five-person surgical team also arrived in Aden aboard a cargo ship sent by the Red Cross. But the organization has been unable to find a cargo plane service willing to fly additional supplies to the country, Feghali said.

Her organization has called for a “humanitarian pause” in the hostilities lasting at least 24 hours, a plea echoed by Russia at the U.N. Security Council. However, Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies worry that the Houthis would use any halt in the airstrikes to take control of Aden, where Hadi sought refuge before fleeing the country late last month.

In Riyadh, the Saudi capital, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri said the coalition was collaborating with international agencies that want to send aid to Yemen, but fighting near Aden meant that “getting the transported aid to residents … at the moment is unsuitable.”

Aden has been the focus of fierce clashes between the Houthis and forces loyal to Hadi, who maintains broad support within the international community.

Fighting has been so intense in some areas that ambulances have been unable to reach the injured and bodies are left in the streets. Two paramedics and a driver with the Yemen Red Crescent Society were killed last week when their ambulances were hit by gunfire in Aden and elsewhere in southern Yemen, the World Health Organization said.

“The situation is very extreme now,” said Feghali. “It’s hard to imagine it getting worse than this.”

More than half of the country’s governorates are affected by the violence.

In the capital, Sana, entire neighborhoods have emptied because they are close to military installations that are being targeted in the airstrikes. Their residents are piling in with relatives who live outside the city.

Food prices have doubled since the fighting escalated three weeks ago, and staples such as flour are disappearing from shop shelves.

Fights break out at the city’s gas stations, where drivers can wait more than 12 hours for fuel. At least two people have been killed in gunfights when anger boiled over.

At the city’s three main hospitals, patients lie on beds in the hallways waiting for the harried staff to attend to them. Emergency room supplies are running low, and it is no longer possible to send patients out of the country for treatment.

“The health services before this war were not satisfactory at all, and now this severe war … is destroying what was left,” said Dr. Khadher Nasser, who heads the Health Ministry office in Aden.

Schools, banks and other institutions are closed in many areas, and government employees haven’t been able to collect their monthly wages.

In Yemen’s northwest, near the Saudi frontier, Mohammed Kibsi visited relatives Tuesday, hoping to borrow money to feed his children. But his kin hadn’t eaten a meal in 36 hours.

Dozens of people were reported killed last week as they sheltered in a camp near Kibsi’s village, and he agonizes over how to shield his seven children from the same fate.

“There are no [bomb] shelters, neither in Sana nor in any town or village across the country,” said Kibsi, 49. “We have nothing to protect our children. This might force most people to join the army or the Houthi militias, so as to defend themselves and their kids.”

Night after night, families are shaken from their sleep by the terrifying sounds of Saudi-led bombardments and antiaircraft gunfire.

In Sana, Mona Shami’s nieces and nephews wake up in tears. Her mother tries to soothe them by saying the gunfire is part of wedding celebrations, but the children don’t believe her.

“We try to kill our fear by gathering all in one room and talking about anything,” said Shami, a 28-year-old public relations specialist who was taking advantage of a cafe’s generator and Wi-Fi to check her email.

“I still have hope in God that we are going to survive,” she said. “But even if this war is over, Yemen is no longer an acceptable place to live. I will do anything to leave the country, even if I have to sell myself to the devil.”

As antiaircraft fire sounded in the distance, Shami’s cellphone rang. It was her mother calling to plead with her to come home.

Special correspondent Al-Alayaa reported from Sana and Times staff writer Zavis from Riyadh. Special correspondent Amro Hassan in Berlin contributed to this report.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

4:57 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details and background information.

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