As the conflict in Yemen enters its fourth year, many parents are having to witness their children wasting away, unable to do anything about it. The mother pictured here fled her home while eight months pregnant with Mona*, due to the escalating conflict inside the city and the lack of access to food. Photo credit: Jonathan Hyams / Save the Children
“What would you do - take one child to the hospital or feed the others?”
Claire Nicoll works for the Humanitarian Operations Team at Save the Children. During the summer of 2019, Claire lived and worked in Yemen. During her time there, she met many children, mothers and fathers whose stories have stayed with her. Here is one of them.
Today, we visited a health facility in rural Hajjah, northern Yemen. The facility was small and very remote, but there were still dozens of families waiting to see the doctor. In a country with a crippled health system, these facilities represent a desperately needed lifeline.
I met 18-month-old Leila* and her mother Rayah*, and their story is one that I know will stay with me. Leila is suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition – the deadliest form of extreme hunger which can easily claim the lives of young children. In Yemen, it often does.
A mother holds the legs of her 13-month-old child who is severely malnourished. Photo credit: Mohammed Awadh / Save the Children, Oct 2018.
When Rayah took Leila’s shirt off to be examined, I struggled to keep my expression neutral. I was shocked at how painfully thin she was.
“What would you do – take one child to the hospital or feed the others?”
This is the question that Rayah asked when telling me about how the brutal four-year conflict has impacted her life. It shows the impossible choices many mothers in Yemen face every day. She didn’t take Leila to the health facility earlier, when recovery would be guaranteed, as the transport costs would have left her with no money to feed her other children.
Her husband, a teacher, hasn’t been paid in months and the family has survived on bread and tea – with tomatoes as an occasional treat – for two years.
Rayah has already lost two children, one from hunger and the other from cancer. She told me in a matter of fact tone that cancer was easier to bear, as the death was faster, and she felt less responsible.
I had no answer to her question.
On the Ground in Yemen, Helping Children Survive
I heard many stories like Rayah’s today.
Nobody I spoke to could remember eating fish or meat in the last year. Most of the mothers were skipping meals or even starving themselves just to feed their children, and many of them had become dangerously malnourished themselves.
They told me how their lives keep getting harder, how the conflict has robbed them of the ability to care for their own children. Obstructions on food imports and rocketing food prices have forced them to watch their children waste away, unable to do anything about it.
Save the Children recently found that some 85,000 children under 5 in Yemen may have died because of extreme hunger since the war began. Children who die in this way suffer immensely as their vital organ functions slow down and eventually stop. Now I can’t stop thinking about how many of the children I met are in this number, or soon will be.
Rayah said she used to have big dreams for the future, but now she just hopes Leila, her last surviving child, might live to see her second birthday.
The existence of health facilities like the one I visited drastically improve Leila’s chances, and there are many children who are alive because of the work that our teams do. But ultimately the conflict needs to end to ensure that children can survive. One child dying from starvation is one child too many.
*Name changed for protection.
Save the Children has been responding to the crisis in Yemen since 2015. With the support of our donors, over the past four years, our multifaceted response has reached almost 3 million children. Despite the hunger, the poverty and the bombs, we will continue to fight for Yemen’s children. To learn more about our work in Yemen, visit SavetheChildren.org/Yemen
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