Sun, May 06, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Starving mothers in Yemen skip
meals to save their children

A trip around the war-ravaged nation reveals widespread desperation, in what aid agencies are calling the world’s largest humanitarian emergency

By Maggie Michael  /  AP, ADEN, Yemen

Illustration: Louise Ting

The young mother stepped onto the scale for the doctor. Even with all her black robes on, she weighed only 38kg. Umm Mizrah is pregnant, but starving herself to feed her children.

However, her sacrifice might not be enough to save them. The doctor’s office is covered with dozens of photographs of emaciated babies who have come through al-Sadaqa Hospital in Aden, casualties of a three-year war in Yemen that has left millions of people on the edge of famine.

Mothers like Umm Mizrah are often the only defense against the hunger that has killed thousands. They skip meals, they sleep to escape the gnawing in their stomachs. They hide bony faces and emaciated bodies in voluminous black abaya robes and veils.

The doctor asked the mother to get back on the scale holding her son, Mizrah. At 17 months, he was 5.8kg — about half the normal weight for his age. He showed all the signs of “severe acute malnutrition,” the most dire stage of hunger. His legs and feet were swollen — he was not getting enough protein. When the doctor pressed a finger into the skin of his feet, the indentation lingered.

About 2.9 million women and children are acutely malnourished; another 400,000 children are fighting for their lives, in the same condition as Mizrah.

Nearly a third of Yemen’s population — 8.4 million of its 29 million people — rely completely on food aid or else they would starve. That number grew by a quarter over the past year.

Aid agencies say that parts of Yemen could soon start to see widespread death from famine. An increasing number of people are reliant on aid that is already failing to reach people.

The war drags on interminably between Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels, who hold the nation’s north, and the Saudi-led coalition, armed and backed by the US, which has sought to bomb the rebels into submission with a relentless air campaign in support of the Yemeni government.

It is unknown how many have died, since authorities are not able to track cases. Save the Children estimated that 50,000 children might have died last year of extreme hunger or disease, given that up to 30 percent of children with untreated cases of severe acute malnutrition die.

“Unfortunately, now Yemen is considered to be the world’s largest humanitarian emergency,” said Stephen Anderson, the Yemen director of the World Food Programme.

About 18 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from.

Even before the war, the Arab world’s poorest nation struggled to feed itself. It is a country of deserts and mountains where only 2 to 4 percent of the land is cultivated, so almost all of its food and supplies must be imported.

The war has shattered everything that kept Yemen just above starvation. Coalition warplanes blasted hospitals, schools, farms, factories, bridges and roads. The coalition has also clamped a land, sea and air embargo on Houthi-controlled areas, including the Red Sea port of Hodeida, once the entry point of 70 percent of Yemen’s imports. Now far less gets in, as coalition ships offshore allow through only UN-inspected and approved commercial ships and aid, often with delays.

In many places there is food in the markets, but people simply cannot afford it, since salaries are going unpaid, work is harder to find and the currency has collapsed in value.

Umm Mizrah and her husband, who have three young daughters in addition to Mizrah, usually eat one meal a day, often just bread and tea. The Associated Press is identifying her by the nickname she often goes by, meaning “mother of Mizrah,” to protect her privacy.

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