Tens of thousands of Yemenis have been scrambling from their villages as fighting closes in on a strategic city on the Red Sea, inflaming a humanitarian crisis already considered the most severe in the world.
What began as a trickle fleeing Yemen’s civil war in December has grown to more than 140,000, with hundreds more abandoning their homes each day. Refugee settlements have sprung up across southern Yemen, multiplying the pressure on Western aid agencies and hospitals struggling to cope with injuries, disease and hunger.
The crisis grew even more urgent on Wednesday when a Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s exiled government launched an offensive to capture Hodeida, a vital port controlled by northern rebels.
The United Nations has warned that an assault on the city of 600,000 people could be catastrophic, and the human toll could extend well beyond the city’s limits. More than three-quarters of Yemen’s food is imported through Hodeida’s port, which is also essential for the entry of fuel, medicine and other essential supplies.
“It is the lifeline of the country,” said Lise Grande, the top U.N. humanitarian official in Yemen. “If you cut that port off, we have a catastrophe on our hands.” She warned that as many as 250,000 Yemenis could die of violence, hunger and illness if there’s a prolonged siege of the city.
The United Nations had sought to head off the attack by the Saudi-led coalition, which receives logistical and intelligence support from the United States. But the coalition forces, and in particular the United Arab Emirates, were determined to press forward with the offensive. As it seemed increasingly imminent, the United Nations and other aid agencies pulled staff from Hodeida.
If this route is blocked, “the result will be more hunger, more people without health care and more families burying their loved ones,” said Muhsin Siddiquey, the Yemen director for the British charity Oxfam.
The United Nations estimated the offensive could drive 200,000 more people from their homes, on top of those who have already fled armed clashes in recent months near the besieged city.
For uprooted villagers, reaching safety has meant crossing front lines, dodging airstrikes and mortar rounds, and traversing roads and fields seeded with land mines. Villagers have often slipped out of their homes under the cover of darkness to avoid rebels who have been preventing people from fleeing and pressing children to take up arms, recently displaced Yemenis said in interviews.
“All we brought were some blankets and the clothes on our back,” said Jabra Sayed, a mother of four, in an interview last month after arriving at the front-line area of Hayma along with 70 other families.
As she spoke, coalition-backed Yemeni fighters in sarongs and sandals fired off rockets and mortar shells every few minutes. Pickup trucks mounted with heavy machine guns rumbled past the ragged tents of the displaced, bound for the front.
Many refugees have been streaming into the main southern city of Aden and other towns, crowding into ill-equipped hospitals and clinics with diseases, malnourished babies and injuries from land mines and unexploded munitions.
“We don’t have enough resources,” said Muhsin Mushid, the administrator of Ibn Khaldoun Hospital, one of the largest public medical centers in the south. “The more areas that are liberated, the more displaced will come here. This will place an even greater burden on us.”
A harrowing escape
Hassan Eissa and his family arrived last month in the town of Khokha in a military truck, which had rescued them. His pregnant sister-in-law was clutching her rounded belly in pain, her leg broken. His teenage daughter was crying, her left arm shattered and tied with a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Also aboard was the corpse of his mother-in-law.
Half an hour earlier, he said, their car had struck a land mine.
“The clashes had started up, and so we were escaping our village,” recalled Eissa in an interview shortly after the incident. “As we reached the main road, a big explosion threw us all in the air.”
For the past three years, their village had been under the control of the northern rebels, known as the Houthis.
Backed by Iran, the Houthis are Shiite Muslims in a majority-Sunni country. The Houthis had taken advantage of the political mayhem following the Arab Spring uprising that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh to wage their rebellion. By early 2015, the rebels had driven the internationally recognized Yemeni government from the capital, Sanaa. Soon after, a Sunni coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, formed to counter the rebels.
Yemen was already the Middle East’s poorest country, and the civil war has further exacerbated the humanitarian crisis. About three-quarters of Yemen’s 30 million people are now in need of assistance, and nearly a third of those are on the brink of famine, according to U.N. data. The war has killed more than 10,000 civilians. Thousands more have died of disease. More than 3 million people have been driven from their homes.
When Eissa’s family reached Khokha, he was most worried about his daughter Rabab, 13, the oldest of his seven children. There were two medical field clinics in the town, but they would treat only wounded fighters. At the only civilian clinic, there was no surgeon. In fact, there was only one doctor in the whole town.
So Eissa and his family continued down the road to Mokha, where there was a hospital. But it, too, had no surgeon, nor a proper intensive-care unit, oxygen or essential medicines. Nor was there a doctor who could set bone fractures and help his sister-in-law.
The hospital’s meager staff, who said they hadn’t been paid in a year, were flooded with cases of malnutrition and chronic disease. “There’s a lot of pressure on this hospital,” said Amin al-Shadhely, the head of the health office in Mokha.
To save Rabab, Eissa would need to take her to Aden, a six-hour drive from Mokha. They reached Aden late at night and took her to a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders. There, Western surgeons amputated her arm above the elbow.
Homes built of blankets
When Saudi-led forces began to bomb targets around his village, Hamisa Daghash considered fleeing with his wife and 14 children. But he couldn’t afford the $200 for a minibus.
One day, Houthis took cover around his house, presumably using the villagers as human shields, he said. That was the tipping point. “We worried that the airstrikes would now certainly hit us,” Daghash said in an interview last month.
He borrowed the $200, and the family packed up.
The rebels, though, ordered them to remain. They wanted his sons to join their fighters, recalled Maha, his 20-year-old daughter.
In the predawn darkness, as the rebels prayed at the mosque, Daghash and his family escaped. At a checkpoint, they said they were heading north, farther into rebel-held territory. “If we told them we were going down south, they wouldn’t have let us,” said Awad, his 15-year-old son.
The family now lives in a displacement camp in Mokha, which has doubled in size to 50 families in the past five months. Daghash’s home is a tent made of blankets, tarpaulin and pieces of cardboard. Some of the earlier arrivals live in proper canvas tents donated by aid groups funded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but they are few.
For most of the uprooted now living across the south, life is precarious. Some live in unfinished houses, often next to open sewers. Others reside in small huts made of banana leaves, forced to work for locals at a third of the normal wage to feed their families.
‘How will she take care of a baby with one arm?’
On a recent day in Aden, Eissa’s daughter Rabab was lying in the hospital, a red scarf around her neck.
On a table next to her bed sat a blond-haired doll in a red dress, a gift from her uncle. Using her right arm, Rabab played with the doll’s legs and then twisted a lever that made it sing: “My name is Maya. I love you.”
“I always listen to this song,” she said. “It makes me happy.”
She has large brown eyes and speaks in a shy, soft voice. She had never attended school. One was built in their area just before the war, her father said, but the teachers never came. “They refused to come after the airstrikes began,” he said.
Rabab remembers being thrown from the car in the explosion. She remembers her grandmother on the ground. Rabab hasn’t seen her mother since the incident. Eissa’s plan was to take the children and elderly out first, then fetch his wife. Now, he couldn’t afford to transport his wife to Aden.
One of Rabab’s favorite games, she said, was skipping rope. She said it matter-of-factly, as if not realizing she may never skip rope unaided again.
Eissa said his mind often travels back to the days just before they fled the village. He had accepted an offer for Rabab to marry a 16-year-old fisherman in Hodeida. The dowry was $1,250, to be paid in installments.
“That’s what I think about at night,” said Eissa. “How will she take care of a baby with one arm? How will she carry the baby? Now, we don’t know if the boy will accept her.”
If he does, his parents will certainly offer a lower dowry, perhaps a third of the price. “I’ll have to accept,” Eissa said. “What else can I do?”
And if the boy doesn’t?
“She will stay at home,” Eissa said. “I can’t throw her away.”