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Hunger and food shortages remain a severe problem for millions in Yemen


Almost a decade of war in Yemen seems to be winding down. But in hospitals there, people are still struggling for their lives in the face of widespread hunger and food shortages. Some 200,000 people have already died from malnutrition and lack of health care during the war. Children are the most vulnerable. And as NPR's Fatma Tanis reports, not enough aid is coming in. Please note that this story contains descriptions of sick children.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Rows of makeshift tents make up this camp for internally displaced people, one of the oldest in the port city of Aden and home to thousands who fled the war in northern areas. Underneath the scorching sun, people line up to fill their cans with water from a tank that's sometimes empty, and no food is being provided. Inside one of the tents is 19-year-old Wafa Ibrahim Ali, whose family fled their home because of airstrikes from the Saudi-led coalition.

WAFA IBRAHIM ALI: (Through interpreter) We couldn't leave our homes for weeks. I know so many people who died - friends, neighbors - and many others were badly injured.

TANIS: As she talks, her 2-year-old son sticks close. He's not wearing anything because she's been unable to get clothes for him. She's thankful that they are safe in this camp, but they still don't have money, even for food.

ALI: (Through interpreter) We haven't gotten any food aid. My father and brother try to find work carrying things, but most times, we don't have food to eat.

TANIS: About half of Yemen's population needs food assistance. A recent survey by the World Food Program showed that more than one million pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers and more than two million children under five are suffering from acute malnutrition.


TANIS: The dire situation is reflected in Aden's Al-Sadaqa hospital, where the departments for women and children are at capacity.

MANAL ABDULHALEEM: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Dr. Manal Abdulhaleem heads the neonatal department. She says they don't have enough equipment or beds to deal with the number of babies who are born premature with anemia and other issues because the mothers aren't able to eat enough.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: We take a tour around the department. In one room, a young mother explains through her tears that she's trying to breastfeed but doesn't have enough milk to feed her child. Abdulhaleem tries to comfort her.


TANIS: We head next to the intensive care unit for newborns, often born with complications because of malnutrition.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: As we enter, a nurse pulls a sheet over a baby who just died. The parents aren't here. Often, families use all their resources to bring their child to the hospital but can't afford to return again. So the hospital has to take care of burials too, without them.

This has been the reality in Yemen for years. Abdulhaleem says, recently, they felt a glimmer of hope when the peace talks started. But in the year or so since, they haven't seen a drop in needs or hospitalizations. There isn't enough aid coming in. David Gressly is the United Nations resident and humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, reached in July from Sanaa. He says $4.3 billion was needed this year to provide lifesaving aid to Yemen, but they had only received 29% of what they needed.

DAVID GRESSLY: The humanitarian situation is really pretty serious throughout the country, with over 21 million people in need, of which we're probably providing food to about 10, 10 1/2 million people, given the funding levels that we currently have.

TANIS: Gressly says the U.S. and European countries have been contributing. But donations have wavered from the two main Gulf countries that have sent troops into Yemen's conflict - Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

GRESSLY: So, for example, the UAE is not in a position right now to contribute, even though they did two years ago. And the contributions coming from Saudi Arabia are also quite a bit lower than in the past. So that's where our core problem is right now.

TANIS: NPR reached out to the foreign ministries of Saudi Arabia and the UAE for comment but has received none. More recently, Saudi Arabia said it pledged a package of a billion dollars that included food security to the government of Yemen.

While the shortage in aid is one major problem, another is the unresolved conflict. In 2014, Houthi rebels backed by Iran overthrew the Saudi-backed government. They took control of parts of Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa. And even with peace talks last year slowing down the fighting, the country remains divided. There are fuel shortages, and the movement of essentials like water, food and medicine is restricted in many areas. Gressly worries people won't buy into the possibility of peace if they can't see the benefits, like in the frontline, still-dangerous city of Taiz.

GRESSLY: One of my major concerns is places like Taiz that have not seen the kind of benefit that the de facto truce has provided to other populations in the country. So I'm concerned about that from a larger point of view because we want everybody to have a stake in peace and to believe that peace will be of benefit to them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Taiz is the third-largest city in Yemen, divided in half between the two warring sides.


TANIS: At Al-Thawra hospital, 27-year-old Malia Qassim Mahmoud is sitting on a bed with her emaciated baby lying limp in her arms. She tries to feed him some protein paste, but he can barely open his mouth.

MALIA QASSIM MAHMOUD: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: This is her third time in the hospital. Her older child was severely malnourished and had to be brought in for treatment. He's better now, but his growth has been stunted, leaving the 6-year-old much smaller than other kids his age. She herself was malnourished and had to be hospitalized too.

MAHMOUD: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: She says they've never gotten aid through the war. Her husband lost access to his job after the division, and for years, he hasn't been able to find consistent work. The lack of fuel in Taiz means businesses don't operate. Aid and other goods can't come in easily. Most days, the family only have some water and flour. Mahmoud makes doughy paste, and they eat that. Usually it's just one meal a day. As we finish speaking, Dr. Abdulqawi Dirham, who's the head of the nutrition department here, pulls me aside.

ABDULQAWI DIRHAM: Hospital acquired infection.

TANIS: There's another problem, he says, the hospital isn't clean. They're not getting enough sanitation supplies, and there's been no functioning ministry of health overseeing them. Many patients have gotten infections from staying at the hospital. So now they don't keep anyone longer than a week, which is often not enough time to recover from malnutrition.

MAHMOUD: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: For Malia Qassim Mahmoud, there's little hope that the war will end and that her life will get better. Soon, she and her baby will have to go back home where nothing has changed. She will still only be able to provide her family with water and flour. And as long as Yemen remains in desperate need of aid, Mahmoud says she'll likely end up back at the hospital again. Fatma Tanis, NPR News, reporting from Aden and Taiz, Yemen.

(SOUNDBITE OF JHENE AIKO SONG, "B.S.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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