Aid Workers Being Targeted as Yemen’s Crisis Worsens

Humanitarian groups report attacks and deaths as they try to stop hunger and help the wounded in the Persian Gulf nation’s war.

An inside view of a hospital after a Shiite Houthis shelling in Taiz, Yemen, on Dec. 31, 2015. (Photo: Abdulnasser Seddek/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Jan 13, 2016· 3 MIN READ
David Fonseca is a freelance reporter and producer in Los Angeles. His work has appeared on The Huffington Post, Syria Deeply, Revolt Live and numerous local publications.

The bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières–supported hospital in northern Yemen is the latest brutality of a civil war that has disproportionately placed aid workers and civilians in the crosshairs. At least five people were killed there, and the attack marked the third time one of the humanitarian organization's hospitals has been attacked in three months.

The medical facility was clearly marked as off-limits to both sides of the conflict, according to the group also known as Doctors Without Borders, which meant it should have been safe from Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition loyal to Yemen’s embattled President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.

Such disregard for the sanctity of medical facilities and civilian areas is an all too common reality in Yemen, according to advocacy groups working there. The United Nations last week reported that a combination of United States–backed Saudi air strikes and shelling by Houthi rebels has killed nearly 2,800 civilians and injured 5,300 more.

Rima Kamal, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, is all too familiar with the toll Yemen’s civil war has taken on noncombatants.

“As an organization, we work in conflict zones, and we take risks,” she told TakePart from Sana’a, Yemen’s second-largest city. “But the risks we’ve taken in Yemen have been much higher than we thought they would be.”

The devastation shows. “Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years,” Peter Maurer, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told The Associated Press after visiting the country in August.

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The following month, two Red Cross workers were shot and killed while traveling in a convoy between Saada and Sana’a. One of Kamal’s coworkers is still being held after being kidnapped on the way to work in early December. In both cases, the perpetrators are still unknown.

Beyond the direct toll of the air strikes and shelling, Kamal said the suffering of Yemeni civilians is being exacerbated by restrictions on the flow of humanitarian aid.

For nearly seven months, a naval blockade enforced by Saudi Arabia restricted much-needed food and medical supplies from reaching Yemen’s shores. Those blockades, combined with persistent Saudi air strikes and what Human Rights Watch has deemed “indiscriminate” shelling of civilian areas by Houthi rebels, have worsened a malnutrition crisis in what was already one of the world’s most food-insecure countries.

According to Kamal, the naval blockade is gradually being lifted, but fuel imports remain insufficient and available food isn’t reaching people in need.

“Damaged roads and destroyed bridges hamper the transport of imports to markets across the country. Prices for fuel and food remain above pre-crisis levels and essential commodities remain out of reach of most Yemenis,” Kamal said.

She added that said internal restrictions placed upon aid workers by both rebel groups and forces loyal to Hadi remain in place.

For example, Kamal said it takes weeks of meetings to secure safe passage for aid workers in the besieged southern city of Taiz, which is currently controlled by Houthi rebels.

“If a certain party has control of a certain area, they decide who gets in,” Kamal said. “Just yesterday we were able to get medical supplies, but it just takes so much time to gain entry and to defend our neutral distribution method. These restrictions keep us from responding to the people who are in need and in a timely fashion. People are dying because they are not getting medical supplies they need. We’ve talked to doctors who have the technical skill to operate but lack the supplies.”

Following years of political turmoil, Yemen’s civil war began in earnest in March 2015, when Hadi fled Yemen for Saudi Arabia as Houthi rebels closed in on the capital city of Aden. Since then, Saudi Arabia, with logistical and technical support from the United States, has launched persistent air strikes in Yemen.

Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained that while Yemen’s civil war is first and foremost an internal struggle, the United States has a stake in the conflict owing to its strong alliance with Saudi Arabia.

“Hadi is still the internationally recognized president, and the U.S. is generally on board with Saudi Arabia’s stated goal of returning him to power,” Baron said. “It’s hard to see the U.S. turning its back on Saudi Arabia.”

Two previous rounds of U.N.-sponsored talks aimed at bringing peace to Yemen have ended inconclusively, and a third round set to begin on Jan. 14 has been postponed. Given the lack of international pressure, there’s little hope that Yemen’s civil war will end any time soon.

In the meantime, Kamal said, she worries about Yemen’s crisis getting lost in the media shuffle, especially with overwhelming images of human suffering emanating from the Syrian town of Madaya, which has endured a similar blockade of humanitarian aid.

“Overall, people are saturated, when you look at the Middle East, and there is so much suffering, and we get numb. We need something more dramatic and more impactful to believe the situation is serious,” she said. “In the case of Yemen, people compare it to Syria and say the numbers don’t add up. If that’s the case, Yemen won’t get the response it needs for a while to come. But the truth is, a child dying in Yemen is just as tragic as dying in Syria, be it through starvation, sniper fire, or an air strike.”