No warning is given and no air raid sirens sound but the people of Sana’a city in Yemen know when the bombs are about to start falling.
“You’ll know when you hear a plane overhead because the air space is closed to commercial flights so there’s only going to be one type of plane flying,” says Emma O’Leary of the military airstrikes that have become part of the soundtrack to life in the struggling city.
The 31-year-old Corkwoman speaks with a coolness that betrays no trace of the fear the regular strikes must surely generate.
“They generally tend to have very specific targets and fortunately we’re in a residential area so our neighbourhood hasn’t been affected yet,” she says.
“There are no guarantees of course but it’s something I was aware of before I agreed to come here. It’s just the reality of life here.”
It’s a reality that O’Leary, who has been working with an aid agency in Yemen for the past 15 months, says the rest of the world has been slow to recognise.
Yemen has been in the grip of an intensifying civil war for two years now but the Middle East’s least known and least developed country has received little attention from the international community and even less assistance.
“The big issue for us at the moment is funding. Last month the United Nations launched the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan which is a plan that aims to reach 12 million of those Yemenis most in need of help,” O’Leary explains.
“It requires funding of $2.1bn to carry out and at the moment we’re looking at a situation where that’s about 9% funded. That’s a big shortfall.”
O’Leary works as humanitarian access adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of 40 NGOs delivering vital aid to Yemenis affected by the war.
At this stage, there are few to whom that description does not apply. Yemen has a population of just under 28m and 17m are in need of food aid.
There are 3m IDPs — internally displaced people — most of whom have fled from rural areas to Sanaa and other cities to shelter with relatives or in makeshift accommodation.
The UN conservatively estimates the death toll from fighting so far to be at least 10,000 but the conflict is responsible for many more deaths from disease and hunger, with Unicef warning recently that a child was dying every 10 minutes.
“Yemen is a very poor country. Even before the conflict a lot of people were food insecure but now the number just keeps growing,” O’Leary says.
On the internationally recognised hunger scale, stage three indicates crisis, stage four emergency and stage five famine. Officially no area has breached stage four classification but O’Leary isn’t convinced.
“It’s quite likely that due to lack of ability to collect data at a really local level — in remote villages and small towns — there may be famine conditions and we just don’t know about them.
“There’s a hospital here in the city I have visited and it’s really shocking the things that we’ve seen. On the children’s ward there are babies that are five or six months old and weigh practically nothing and their mothers are too malnourished to feed them.
“These are the people reaching the city so there are undoubtedly more who die before they reach here.
“The situation is hard to put into words. We had a woman say to us the other day, I’d rather be killed by an airstrike than watch my children starve to death. It’s terribly sad.”
The food shortage is caused not just by the disruption to agriculture and fishing that in peace time sustains many of the poorest communities, but the de facto blockade that Saudi Arabia — which is backing the government side in the conflict — has placed on the crucial rebel-held port of Hojedia.
“Yemen is a country that imports 90% of its food and it imports almost all of its fuel and medical supplies and we have severe difficulties in getting those things into the country.
“Hojedia is responsible for 70% of the imports and there’s been a massive drop-off in what’s coming in there because of delays with getting clearance to be allowed berth.
“We’re talking ships waiting up to 100 days to be allowed dock at the port. NGOs are trying to bring in medicine and by the time the medicine is allowed into the country, it’s expired.
“What food is getting in has increased in price too so most people can’t afford what they need.
“We have a situation where public servants many of them haven’t had their salary paid since August of last year.
“It’s an even bigger problem for people trying to return home to their villages where there’s a lot of damage from ground fighting or air strikes. In terms of securing a livelihood, there are very limited options.”
Damage to schools and displacement of communities means 2m children are out of school and fewer than half the country’s medical facilities are fully functioning. There is also a shortage of water with damage to wells and irrigation exacerbating the challenges posed by Yemen’s chronically dry climate.
Given the scale of destruction and suffering, the amount of political attention Yemen has received has been slight.
Geography gives its strategic importance but despite its natural beauty, , it has never been a tourist hotspot and its oil industry, tiny by comparison with the Saudis next door, means it has little economic influence.
O’Leary says the fact that the conflict hasn’t washed up on Europe’s shores may also be to blame.
“Yemen isn’t part of the large scale refugee crisis that we’ve been seeing play out in Europe. Yemenis tend to stay in the country when they’re displaced by conflict, partly for cultural reasons but it’s also to do with the sheer logistical difficulties of getting out of the country.”
O’Leary’s own journey to Yemen has had a few twists. From Farran in Co Cork, she studied history and politics at UCC and then detoured to Spain before returning to college in London to study international affairs.
After seven years working as a risk analyst for global business consultancies in London, she switched to the humanitarian sector and took a job in Afghanistan.
Since moving to Yemen she has discovered a people she describes as extremely welcoming and giving but also shamefully forgotten.
“The international governments who have influence on the warring parties involved need to use that influence to bring the parties to the negotiating table. Unfortunately that’s not something we’ve seen happen.
“In the meantime, as the fighting continues, we’re going to see more and more people displaced. We’ll do what we can but we always say peace is the best humanitarian response.”
Information of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s work in Yemen is at: www.nrc.no
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