Yemeni children

These people are fighting off a famine in Yemen

PRI– Fatik al-Rodaini has people to feed this holy month of Ramadan. He and his team of volunteers are delivering food baskets to people who would otherwise have nothing for iftar, the nightly meal when families break their Ramadan fast.

“After 15 hours of fasting you need something to break your fast, as a gift you give yourself,” says Rodaini, a Yemeni man who left a career in journalism to work full time helping to relieve Yemen’s hunger problem. His organization, Mona Relief, is named after a woman who was an early donor. The Mona Relief team identifies families in need and delivers food packages or baskets, each one consisting of basic cooking ingredients.

Boy leans on food basket delivered by Mona Relief in August 2016.

Young Yemenis wait until all aid recipients are matched up with their food deliveries from Mona Relief, August 2016. Credit: Mona Relief

The Mona Relief basket has been adapted for Ramadan:

A 55-pound sack of flour
11-pound bags of rice and sugar
4 pounds of dates (special for Ramadan)
A 2-pound tin of powdered milk (special for Ramadan)
A 2-liter jug of cooking oil 

Rodaini says this can keep a family of six fed for up to a month. Mona Relief serves communities across Yemen’s northern, Houthi-controlled region. On a good day, Rodaini will deliver food for several hundred people.

But 17 million Yemenis are hungry. “That’s 2/3 of the country’s population,” says Abeer Etefa of the World Food Program. “We have the largest food crisis in the world in this country,” she says. “Almost half the population is on the edge of famine. … It’s just a huge crisis.”

“That could push the situation, actually, into a famine.”

The situation

Yemen grows little of its own food, and must import 90 percent of it, but the war has severely limited imports. A naval blockade by Saudi Arabia, with US support, slows maritime traffic and imposes time-consuming inspections. Damage to the country’s largest deep-water port, Hodeidah, has further slowed World Food Program deliveries.

A Yemeni sailor looks at giant cranes, damaged by Saudi-led air strikes, at a container terminal at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen

A Yemeni sailor looks at giant cranes, damaged by Saudi-led airstrikes, at a container terminal at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen. Credit: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

“Ships can be at sea for three weeks waiting for their turn to get to the platform and be able to off-load the cargo and the food,” says Etefa. “In this situation when you have ships carrying food in 50-degree heat [that’s over 120 degrees Fahrenheit], there is … the risk of some quantities of the food going bad.” Most of the hundreds of thousands of tons of food that WFP sends into Yemen arrives wholesome and fresh, albeit slowly.

The recent threat of an invasion of Hodeidah by the Saudi-led coalition of Arab countries has put aid agencies on high alert. “It is absolutely essential to continue to have the port of Hodeidah operating,” says the WFP’s Etefa. “That could push the situation, actually, into a famine if we have any closure of this port.”

The Saudi-led coalition, which supports one side of Yemen’s civil war — and controls all of Yemen’s airspace — has bombed roads and bridges that connect Yemen’s major cities continually for 27 months. Military forces loyal to the opposing side of Yemen’s civil war make many roads impassible by laying land mines. Everywhere in Yemen, road travel is restricted by armed groups working for not just the warring sides, but for tribal groups — and even al-Qaeda.

“Once the food arrives at the ports it gets loaded into trucks, and then it has to make the difficult journey of passing through different places around Yemen where the infrastructure is not good, the roads are really damaged, no security, multiple checkpoints,” Etefa says.

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/Saleh militias in Hodeidah are holding 200 locomotives carrying aid 4
Pic of locomotive@UNReliefChief

Recently, a WFP truck convoy was stopped by Houthi forces who control the route from Hodeidah to Taiz, Yemen’s second-largest city. Officials say the 200 trucks were allowed to continue after an inspection.

The International Committee of the Red Cross experiences the same kind of scrutiny, wherever they travel in Yemen. Even as a cholera outbreak and near-famine conditions require a speedy response, ICRC officials must be prepared to negotiate their cargo’s passage.

“When we send convoys from one location to the other … we have to inform the tribes that a convoy will be passing through their villages. We also have to negotiate the way at every checkpoint to make sure that the convoy will reach where it is supposed to deliver,” says the ICRC’s Robert Mardini. “And I think this has proven to be effective.”

“All this is a direct consequence of a conflict which is entangled, with no solution in sight … and where the basic rules of war are not respected by parties to the conflict,” says Mardini, ICRC’s regional director for the Near and Middle East.

“We have 380 persons working in Yemen,” says Mardini. “In Sanaa, in Saada, in Aden, in Hodeidah — [they are] trying to make a difference on the ground, and they are bearing witness of terrible suffering … of Yemeni people from north to south.” This includes an estimated 2 million internally displaced persons, IDPs, who have fled their homes to escape fighting.

The ICRC and the World Food Program operate on a massive scale, working with local partners to deliver aid to most parts of the country, with the capacity to serve millions of Yemenis, both IDPs and residents. But they can do only so much with limited support from the international community.

“Food aid is not pouring into Yemen,” says Abeer Etefa of the World Food Program. “Yemen is a forgotten crisis. For many a month, we have not been able to get food to the families that need help, so out of the 17 million people, we’re only assisting 3 million people. We’re providing them with only one-third of the food ration.”

Shipments blocked

Small local groups, such as Rodaini’s Mona Relief, don’t import food themselves. Instead, they buy food already delivered to local vendors by Yemeni merchants who have long-established distribution networks.

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Pix taken by @monareliefye in al-Husinia area of Hodeidah during food distribution by @monarelief and funded by @AlkhairGlasgow