Interview with Wafa′a Alsaidy, co-ordinator of Medecins du Monde in Yemen

At the expense of the Yemeni people

After more than three years of violent conflict, Yemen′s public and health sector is on the brink of collapse. While the warring factions are comfortable with the state of affairs, much of the population faces starvation and disease. Wafa′a Alsaidy, co-ordinator of the Yemen mission of Medecins du Monde (MdM) talks to Kai Schnier

Ms. Alsaidy, since 2015 Yemen is in the grip of a violent civil war, with forces of the armed Houthi movement occupying Sana′a in the north and a coalition led by Saudi Arabia supporting the government forces of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi in the south. Today, 8 million Yemenis are in risk of starvation, 2 million people are internally displaced. Despite being one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of our time, however, the conflict is still largely invisible in international news. Why?

Wafa′a Alsaidy: The problem of under-reporting on the crisis in Yemen is twofold. The first issue is the fact that Yemenis have no real way of communicating their plight internationally and are not represented in Europe or elsewhere. Whereas in the case of Syria, for example, there is a growing refugee community in the West that has the means to express itself – also because Syria had a functional educational system before the war – the situation in Yemen is quite different. Here, there was a lack of internationalisation and education even before the conflict. The second issue is the lack of access. All embassies in the two major Yemeni cities Sana′a and Aden are closed. The only way for international journalists to enter the country is via United Nations flights. And even then the authorities on the ground – from both sides of the conflict– often delay the process indefinitely.

As access to the country becomes increasingly difficult, NGOs and aid organisations like Medecins du Monde (MdM), whom you represent, are among the last remaining international actors in Yemen. You live and work in Houthi-controlled Sana′a. What is the situation there right now?

Alsaidy: Life in the city is becoming increasingly more precarious and unpredictable for the people here. At the beginning of the conflict, the bombing raids of the Saudi-led coalition, which backs President Hadi, focused on Houthi military camps and also took place at specific times. Now they have become more erratic. Targeting a funeral in Sana′a in 2016, the coalition killed more than 150 people.

Wafa′a Alsaidy, co-ordinator of Medecins du Monde in Yemen (Skype interview screengrab)
Flexing their muscles with impunity: decision-makers on all sides now occupy positions that they could never have reached via a democratic, institutional process. Similarly, outside forces like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are content to control the coastal regions and ports, never venturing too far inland. According to Wafa′a Alsaidy, no-one has the slightest interest in ending the conflict

A while back, a fuel station in the middle of a civilian area was attacked. Once, a bomb struck so close to my house that the windows shattered. Basically, collateral damage seems to play an ever smaller role in military considerations as the war goes on.

At the same time, of course, the economic situation has become more and more critical. The Houthi government has, for example, long stopped paying salaries to civil and public servants.

How does that affect day-to-day life for the people in Yemen in general and in Sana′a specifically?

Alsaidy: Most importantly, the local populations on both sides of the conflict are unable to afford basic life commodities anymore. Since the beginning of the war, food and fuel prices have skyrocketed. At the same time, employment opportunities have become increasingly rare. During Ramadan, which just ended, you would normally see busy shops and congested streets in Sana′a.

This time around, the stores were almost empty as there is simply no way for people to afford even the most basic commodities. The situation is dire in most respects. Take the educational sector: everyday at 10 a.m. there are lots of kids in the streets, wearing school uniforms. But they don′t have anywhere to go, as most teachers do not work a full day due to irregular and unfulfilled salary payments. The country′s institutional and economic infrastructure is nearing collapse.

That is especially true for the health sector. Currently, it is estimated that around 16 million Yemenis don′t have access to proper healthcare. What can a humanitarian organisation like MdM do to help?

Alsaidy: Right now our primary task is to prevent the imminent breakdown of important health infrastructure. Only around 50 percent of the health sector in Yemen is operational at the moment. There is no money for staff, instruments and drugs. Thus, we are trying to assist governmental agencies by supporting 13 health centres and hospitals around the country. We import drugs via our headquarters in Paris to our base in Djibouti, then on to Sana′a; we also assist locally with consultations and expertise. For us, a main concern is the access of rural populations to medical care. In recent years, if women were pregnant in the villages around Sana′a, for example, they had to travel five hours to receive professional assistance. Many young women and children died in the process. Two weeks ago, we managed to support a rural hospital outside the city in the setting-up of an operation room where C-sections can now be performed. Small steps of course, but small steps are better than no steps at all.

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