SANAA, Yemen ― “I barely slept last night,” I hear my colleagues say as we prepare coffee in the kitchen of our Yemen field office. “My kids are so afraid every night,” another colleague remarks.
I work for Mercy Corps, a global aid and development organization. And everyone in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, can recall the same half dozen airstrikes that rocked the ground and shook the windows the night before. This has been the norm for months at our house in the south of the city. Although a recent cease-fire here was a welcome 72-hour respite – at least in this city – Sanaa is now back to its deadly status quo, with no clear resolution to the conflict in sight.
“'My kids are so afraid every night.'”
Yemen is approaching two years since the war here started, and the country’s humanitarian needs are multiple and massive. Currently, over 14 million people ― more than half the population ― are unsure of how they will provide food for themselves. More than 19 million people lack access to safe water. Some 3 million young children and pregnant and nursing women are acutely malnourished or in need of services to prevent acute malnutrition. I’ve now memorized these statistics because we push them to the front of any publicity around Yemen. The world needs to understand this is one of the most massive humanitarian crises in the world.
But numbers alone cannot capture the suffering. Our local nutrition adviser shows me photos on his phone of a gaunt and weary-looking child being screened for malnutrition by our mobile clinics in Taiz governorate. Trained health workers are taking measurements, but even I – not a trained clinician – can see that this child, who is much too tiny for her age, is horrifyingly unwell.
Our field teams report that parents have been skipping meals in order to share food with their hungry children. Incidence of diarrhea is high, and health officials have announced there is a cholera outbreak throughout the country. Add to this massive flooding a few months ago, an economy hanging above total collapse and numerous failed peace talks, and for many, Yemen seems like an impossible situation.
Since we started programs in the country in 2010, our team at Mercy Corps has been working hard to meet as many of these needs as possible. Since the conflict began, we have distributed food vouchers, kitchen sets, hygiene kits, blankets and mattresses to tens of thousands of people. We have helped to rehabilitate sanitation systems in schools and health facilities, as well as trucked water into urban areas without regular water supply. We have helped more than 1 million people suffering from this war.
“The world needs to understand this is one of the most massive humanitarian crises in the world.”
It is not nearly enough. The scale of the conflict is staggering.
And yet, we have seen shining moments of the best in humanity throughout this devastating crisis. We found one such moment recently in a small village, nestled in the mountains of Sanaa’s sweeping highlands.
The district of Haymah Dakhliyah is a four-hour drive from our office. Its landscape is dotted with majestically old homes reaching seven stories and higher. Sturdily packed donkeys follow the windy roads that our teams traverse to reach the rural communities we support there. As one climbs higher up the mountains, it is possible to see farmers in the terraced fields, cultivating coffee beans from the trees, while others lead their cattle to watering pools.
The decision to start work in this particular village in Haymah Dakhliyah district was complicated. When airstrikes started pummeling Sanaa and surrounding areas last year, many families fled to villages like this one outside the capital; we learned about this particular village after waves of displaced people had already arrived there, desperately in need of support. But this village already faced its own entrenched, internal conflict over land ownership. Village leaders told us the community never gathered anymore, for fear that it would end in armed clashes. And we seriously questioned the safety of working there.
“Some parents in this village were forced to choose between school tuition and food.”
We went anyway.
“The needs there were huge. No one else was providing support,” said one of our field officers, Nasser, whose name has been changed for security reasons. “We were determined to find a way.”
Having lost their livelihoods and with no income, some parents in this village were forced to choose between school tuition and food.
At the local committee meetings we organized, some people suggested that we distribute vouchers to families or hold hygiene and nutrition education sessions in two totally separate locations according to village alliances. But one of the local leaders, Amar ― whose name has also been changed ― protested.
“Do not deepen the gap between us,” he pleaded with our field team. “Make this program an opportunity to end this conflict in our village. Let us make one distribution area and choose volunteers to help from both sides.”
Impressed by his ambition, we tried it.
“'Make this program an opportunity to end this conflict in our village.'”
During our first distribution of food vouchers, all the heads of the selected families from both sides of the village gathered in the designated area. Most had large guns slung over their shoulders. The situation was tense.
“I was nervous something would go wrong. If it did, we would have to leave this village immediately without giving any support,” Nasser said.
Our team and the local leaders explained to the community members it is not acceptable to bring their guns during the distributions. One month later, at the following food voucher distribution, the scene was different. After the leaders worked to bring people together peacefully, villagers from all parts of the community gathered and stood in line to collect their vouchers. No one had a gun.
“We learned then that sometimes peace is possible. It gave us ― and the village ― some hope in this difficult time,” Nasser said.
But the demand remains. A father from one of the families spoke candidly to Nasser.
“Please do not leave us,” he said. “Believe in us and support us. Our village is really in need. With these food vouchers, we can save money to send our children back to school. We hope for success and peace for our community, rather than fighting.”
“'We learned then that sometimes peace is possible.'”
Yemen is a complex juxtaposition of suffering and conflict and strength and reconciliation, even in times of war. I have been in many conversations that flow seamlessly from describing the massive prevalence of hunger, the lack of access to water, the horrifying rates of malnutrition, the relentless bombing and shelling and the frustratingly uncertain prospects for an end to the war to describing the endless warmth of Yemen’s people, its enrapturing architecture and landscape and its rich and diverse culture.
This is the often-cited favorite country of many well-traveled people. Although I arrived here in times of war, I echo that this is unlike any place I have been. It is at once in need of both life-saving humanitarian support and the basic belief – from the international community at large ― that a better Yemen is possible.