Yemen's starving children, grim legacy of six years of war
A woman holds a malnourished child at a treatment centre in Yemen's northern Hajjah province. AFP
Masirah Saqer could barely open her eyes, as she struggled to swallow the milk her grandmother attempted to feed her with a syringe.
Nearby the cries of other malnourished children reverberated around the pink-walled hospital ward, a vivid reminder of the human cost of Yemen's devastating conflict, which drags into a seventh year on Tuesday.
Masirah, just short of three months old, was undergoing treatment at Al-Sabyine hospital's infant malnutrition department in the capital Sanaa. Swaddled in a pink and white comforter, her tiny frame and slender limbs were dwarfed by the full-sized bed on which her grandmother sat as she tried to feed her.
The war in Yemen, the Arabian peninsula's poorest country, has mutated into what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis. After years of protests and political crises that escalated into violent clashes, the conflict took a decisive turn on July 8, 2014.
Huthi rebels from the north pulled off a decisive victory in the battle for the city of Amran north of Sanaa, comprehensively defeating government troops. The major battlefield win opened the way for the rebels to march on the capital and take it with ease -- but not without a dire human cost, with millions eventually pushed to the brink of starvation.
Brink of famine
Masirah was one of the many thousands of infants affected by the conflict. Weighing just 2.4 kilograms (5.3 pounds), she suffered from acute malnutrition, her grandmother told AFP. "We needed a medical checkup, milk, and food. If the medicines are available in the hospital, they give them to us, if not we have to buy them outside," she said.
Millions of children in Yemen now face starvation due to a lack of aid for the country, UNICEF said in June. The long conflict has devastated the health system and displaced 3.3 million people who live in camps where cholera and other diseases are rife.
The humanitarian situation has worsened since Saudi Arabia intervened in March 2015, leading a coalition in support of government forces against the rebels, who are in turn backed by Riyadh's arch-rival Iran. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed, including hundreds of children, in airstrikes and raids.
Yemen, a country with scarce clean water supplies, is now facing another threat -- the spread of the novel coronavirus. Officially, the respiratory disease has killed 330 people in the country.
Doctors at Al-Sabyine's malnutrition department, a facility with capacity for 25 patients, have warned that COVID-19 coupled with fuel shortages have worsened the situation and acted as a barrier to treatment.
Many parents fear their children are at risk of the deadly respiratory disease if they are hospitalised, said doctor Hazaa Abdallah al-Farah. "Some people ... won't send their children to hospital any more" due to fears about the virus, he said.
But the true scale of the impact of coronavirus in the Huthi-controlled north of Yemen remains a mystery. The internationally recognised government accuses the rebels of a cover-up. NGOs and the UN are braced for a catastrophe. UNICEF, the latter's children's agency, has called for $461 million to fund humanitarian work in Yemen and an additional $53 million to fight COVID-19.
Despite the urgent need, only 39 percent of the first sum and just 10 percent of the second have so far been amassed, UNICEF says. The agency has also sounded the alarm over the reduction to its services on the ground.
In June, the UN raised just $1.35 billion of the $2.41 billion it was aiming to secure for Yemen during a virtual donor conference. "They die in their homes unable to get to the health centre or hospital or a clinic because of their bad financial situation," said Amin al-Aizari, another doctor at Al-Sabyine. "They need food," he said. "The children of Yemen die every hour and every minute."