Fri, Jan 04, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Food aid reported stolen as war-torn Yemen starves

Political power is divided among militias that compete to maintain control of city sectors, which leads to those in favor receiving food from UN donations, while those who need it miss out

By Maggie Michael  /  AP, TAIZ, Yemen

Illustration: Mountain People

Day after day, Nabil al-Hakimi, a humanitarian official in Taiz, one of Yemen’s largest cities, went to work feeling that he had a “mountain” on his shoulders. Billions of dollars in food and other foreign aid was coming into his war-ravaged homeland, but millions of Yemenis were still living a step away from famine.

Reports of organizational disarray and out-and-out thievery streamed in to him this spring and summer from around Taiz — 5,000 sacks of rice doled out without record of where they had gone; 705 food baskets looted from a welfare agency’s warehouses; 110 sacks of grain pillaged from trucks trying to make their way through the craggy northern highlands overlooking the city.

Food donations, it was clear, were being snatched from the starving.

Documents, and interviews with al-Hakimi and other officials and aid workers, show that thousands of families in Taiz are not getting international food aid intended for them, often because it has been seized by armed units that are allied with the Saudi Arabian-led, US-backed military coalition fighting in Yemen.

“The army that should protect the aid is looting the aid,” al-Hakimi told reporters.

Across Yemen, factions and militias on all sides of the conflict have blocked food aid from going to groups suspected of disloyalty, diverted it to front-line combat units or sold it for profit on the black market, according to public records and confidential documents, and interviews with more than 70 aid workers, government officials and average citizens from six provinces.

The problem of lost and stolen aid is common in Taiz, and other areas controlled by Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which is supported by the Saudi Arabian-led military coalition. It is even more widespread in territories controlled by the Houthi rebels, the struggling government’s main enemy during the nearly four years of warfare that has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Some observers have attributed the near-famine conditions in much of the country to the coalition’s blockade of ports that supply Houthi-controlled areas. Investigations by reporters found that large amounts of food are making it into the country, but once there, the food often is not getting to people who need it most — raising questions about the ability of UN agencies and other big aid organizations to operate effectively in Yemen.

The UN’s World Food Program has 5,000 distribution sites across the country targeting 10 million people a month with food baskets, but says it can monitor just 20 percent of the deliveries.

Last year the UN, the US, Saudi Arabia and others have poured more than US$4 billion in food, shelter, medical and other aid into Yemen. That figure has been growing and is expected to keep climbing this year.

Despite the surge in help, hunger — and, in some pockets of the country, famine-level starvation — have continued to grow.

An analysis last month by a coalition of global relief groups found that even with the food aid that is coming in, more than half of the population is not getting enough to eat — 15.9 million of Yemen’s 29 million people. They include 10.8 million who are in an “emergency” phase of food insecurity, roughly 5 million who are in a deeper “crisis” phase and 63,500 who are facing “catastrophe,” a synonym for famine.

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