Medical flights start from Yemen's Sanaa in diplomatic breakthrough
Flights carrying patients needing urgent medical attention began from the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Monday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said, a long-sought confidence-building measure in diplomatic efforts to end the five-year war.
Fifteen-year-old Abdallah Abed was one of 16 patients on the first flight to Amman. "I have kidney failure and I need a transplant," he said. "God willing we travel today to Jordan for treatment."
Yemen has been mired in conflict since the Iran-aligned Houthis ousted the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi from Sanaa in late 2014. A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in 2015 to try to restore Hadi.
Cancer patients – the other victims of Yemen's war
For more than three years a military alliance led by Saudi Arabia has been fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Even hospitals are not safe from the bombing raids. Those who fall seriously ill can expect little help.
Expensive treatment: Khaled Ismael kisses the right hand of his daughter Radhiya. The 17-year-old cancer patient's left arm had to be amputated. The father could not afford better treatment, although he sold what he could and even borrowed money: "The war has destroyed our lives. We couldn't go abroad, so my daughter didnʹt receive the treatment she needed"
No government support: Yemenʹs National Oncology Centre in Sanaa has not received any government support for two years. The cancer centre is now financed through international organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and donations from charities and business people
Only for children: the few beds available in the cancer clinic are reserved for children. The centre admits about 600 new cancer patients every month. Last year, however, the facility only had one million dollars to spend on treatment
Cancer therapy in the waiting room: adult patients at the cancer clinic are treated intravenously – on rickety camp beds or in the waiting room. Before the war, the centre received approximately $15 million a year in support and was even able to provide cancer drugs for other clinics in Yemen
Lack of relief supplies: a patient waits for her treatment at the cancer clinic in Sanaa. But there is a dearth of medical supplies in Yemen. The Saudi-led military coalition has severely restricted air and sea links. This was intended to stop the delivery of weapons to the Houthi rebels, who control large parts of the country and the capital
Too few doctors: Ali Hizam Mused, 70, has a tumour in his mouth. An aid organisation in Sanaa provides him and other cancer patients with shelter. There is not only a lack of beds, but also of doctors. Medical personnel are hard to find in Yemen. Moreover, many people cannot afford treatment
Humanitarian crisis: Fourteen year-old patient Amena Muhssein Owaid stands in a home for cancer patients run by a relief organisation. Millions of people in Yemen are at risk of malnourishment and diseases such as cholera, diphtheria and malaria. According to UN estimates, 50,000 people have already died as a result of the war
The flights took two years of negotiations to arrange, the United Nations humanitarian co-ordinator in Yemen Lise Grande said from Sanaa airport. The airport has been closed to civilian flights since 2015, although U.N. planes have been permitted to land there.
Thousands need care, Grande said. "This is the first flight, there will be more," she said, adding that the real solution is to end the war.
Supervised by the U.N. and the WHO, flights from Sanaa will go to Amman and Cairo. The U.N. thanked Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia for their efforts, adding that "the collaboration and commitment of both the Government of Yemen and Sanaa authorities made this operation possible".
WHO said most of the patients were women and children with cancer and brain tumours, or needing organ transplants and reconstructive surgeries.
"It is hoped these flights will enable the opening of regular medical 'bridge' flights for sick patients," said aid organisation the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). "There is no justification for punishing very sick civilians by blocking them from accessing medical treatment."
Although the Houthis control Sanaa airport, access is restricted by the coalition, which controls the air space.
Re-opening the airport has been a major aim of U.N.-led peace talks and a demand of the Houthi administration.
The United Nations has been trying to re-launch political negotiations to end the war. Separately, Riyadh has been holding informal talks with the Houthis since late September on decreasing hostilities.
U.N. Yemen Envoy Martin Griffiths held last-minute talks with Houthi authorities on Sunday on the medical evacuation plans, a diplomatic source said.
A second flight will take the rest of the first batch of 30 patients to Amman, and more flights will follow, a joint statement by Griffiths, Grande and a WHO representative said.
Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, head of the Houthis' Supreme Revolutionary Committee, said 32,000 people are registered on medical evacuation lists. (Reuters)