Oxfam Ireland's Colm Byrne reflects on the crisis in Yemen after visiting the country last summer
Oxfam has been working in the Middle East since the 1950s. It is a region marked by crisis. Most people are aware of the ongoing war in Syria and the massive displacement and human casualty resulting from it. This Christmas, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley alone, 350,000 Syrian refugees are surviving their ninth winter far from home in horribly inadequate refugee camps. But another conflict in the region, that is now in its fourth year, has failed to receive the same level of international attention and outcry.
According to the UN, four years of conflict have plunged Yemen into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis with almost 80% of the population in need of assistance. Widespread fighting has killed thousands of innocent civilians and forced millions to flee their homes; however, it’s food that has become the deadliest weapon of war for the people of Yemen.
Warring parties have intentionally blocked food, fuel and essential aid from entering the country and restrictions have been placed on private importers of food and fuel, pushing prices even higher.
At the same time, the economy is collapsing, and people are losing their jobs, income and ability to provide for their families. Airstrikes and fighting across the country have wiped-out farms and factories, destroying both sources of food and people’s livelihoods.
This summer I visited our team in Yemen. For the first time in my career, security guards check underneath our car for bombs as we enter the office compound. This was a stark reminder of the risks our staff face every day. I was relieved to learn that airstrikes had reduced from almost every day to about three times per month; but still there was no complacency.
The main street was twice as wide as any street in Ireland (surprisingly, half the number of potholes). Many of the businesses which lined it are now closed. Oxfam estimates that as many as 35% of businesses have been forced to shut down because of the war and beyond the sale of scrap metal, the odd electronics shop, and the occasional cluster of food stalls selling the most basic of foods, it is hard to comprehend how anyone makes a living. Poverty does not discriminate in Yemen.
Nowhere, and I mean nowhere, was there a sense of affluence.
During a meeting with Oxfam staff and the local partners we work with, I was shown photos of the fatalities of war; so graphic they will never make publication. While understanding why, I am forever conflicted by the fact that by withholding the true horrors of war, we miss the opportunity to mobilise the power of humanity against it. At the same time, I fear that the more we do present reality, the more people become immune to it. Nonetheless, this is a reminder that our conversation is about the lives, and deaths, of real people.
I visited the Khudesh Camp, home to about 1,200 of the 3.3 million people displaced by this conflict. It didn’t fit the conventional idea of a camp. Shelters, made of loosely stacked palm leaves, were dotted across barren land - People are afraid to cluster their shelters for fear of becoming an easier target for deliberate airstrikes. While the sense of security people feel is paramount, this presents a challenge for humanitarian agencies like Oxfam. Rather than providing a small number of shared water and sanitation facilities, the need is for services at a household level.
Water tanks (that meet the needs of 67 people) were empty as the water trucks had not yet finished their rounds. In such circumstances, water for health, washing of clothes, and personal hygiene is deferred. I also visited a second site where Oxfam has installed one of two solar-powered pumping stations, supplying water to 250,000 people.
The families at the camp, supported by multiple agencies including Oxfam, are luckier than most. They have escaped the frontline hostilities. But if this was lucky, what of the people who were unable to flee?
We know that women and children are hardest hit by this entirely manmade humanitarian catastrophe. Families are forced to make impossible choices to stay alive, including the desperate decision to marry their daughters at a young age, to ensure they can feed their family or pay off mounting debts.
I noticed different things on my return journey. Soldiers at checkpoints seemed much younger than before - Forced recruitment of child soldiers is a well-recognised feature of this conflict. From a young age, children face experiences that we could not conceive of in a lifetime.
I spent my final days learning how the funds the Irish public so generously raised have helped the people of Yemen. The Gender Justice Team explained to me how Yemeni women are working to bring about an end to the conflict. They told me of the story of the wise Queen of Sheeba who, according to legend, ruled over a land that is now modern-day Yemen and who favoured peace-building over conflict. Now there’s food for thought this Christmas.
Colm Byrne is a Humanitarian Manager with Oxfam Ireland. To learn more about Oxfam Ireland’s work with communities in places like Yemen, Syria and beyond, visit www.oxfamireland.org