HAYS, Yemen (AP) — An emaciated girl lies motionless on a hospital bed and struggles to breathe. Her body is covered in sores. She can barely open her eyes.
Hafsa Ahmed is about 2. About a dozen other children at the red brick hospital in this southern Yemeni city are also starving.
Hunger has long threatened the lives of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni children. Now the war between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and a Saudi Arabia-led coalition threatens to escalate after months of tenuous truce. Yemenis and international aid organizations are concerned that the situation will worsen.
In the city of Hodeida, with a population of about 3 million, the al-Thawra hospital receives 2,500 patients daily, including “super malnourished” children, said Joyce Msuya, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. She visited the facility this month.
About 2.2 million Yemeni children under the age of 5 are starving. More than half a million people are severely malnourished. According to the United Nations, about 1.3 million pregnant or breastfeeding women were severely malnourished this year.
“This is one of the saddest visits I’ve ever made in my professional life,” Msuya said in a video released by the UN. “There are huge needs. Half of Yemen’s hospitals are either down or completely destroyed by the war. We need more support to save lives in Yemen, children, women and men.”
The war in Ukraine exacerbates the situation.
The Yemeni diet relies heavily on wheat. Ukraine supplied Yemen with 40% of its grainuntil the Russian invasion cut off the power. In developed countries, people work harder to pay higher bills. In Yemen, food is 60% more expensive than last year. And in poor countries, inflation can mean death.
“Yemen has been hit three times by the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” said Peter Salisbury, a Yemen expert at the International Crisis Group. “Firstly, due to the loss of food supplies from Ukraine and higher prices on the international markets. Then because of higher fuel prices. And thirdly, due to a shift in international focus.”
Yemen has been at war for eight years between Houthi Shia rebels and pro-government forces, supported by a coalition of Sunni Arab Gulf states. The Iranian-backed Houthis fell from the mountains in 2014, occupying northern Yemen and the country’s capital, Sanaa, and forcing the internationally recognized government to flee into exile to Saudi Arabia.
Since then, more than 150,000 people have been killed in the violence and 3 million have been displaced. Two-thirds of the population receives food aid.
There is now a truce, despite the fact that both sides have not extended it this month. Hafsa and more than half a million other Yemeni children are severely malnourished. According to Save the Children, a child in Yemen dies every 10 minutes from a preventable disease.
Hafsa is the youngest of six. One died of malnutrition. Her father Ahmed, 47, works as a day labourer. Every day he can only afford some flour and cooking oil.
He and his family live in the Hays district, about 120 kilometers south of the port city of Hodeida, where some of the fiercest fighting in the conflict in Yemen has taken place.
The children at Hays Hospital have swollen bellies and twig-like limbs. Ultimately, prolonged malnutrition causes their organs to stop functioning, said Dr. Nabouta Hassan.
Hassan, who oversees the hospital’s malnutrition ward, said it takes in up to 30 children each month suffering from illnesses related to acute malnutrition.
Hodeida, along with northern Hajjah province, includes areas worst hit by extremely severe food insecurity and acute malnutrition, UN says
Mohammed Hussein, a 49-year-old father of five, lives in a camp for IDPs in the suburbs of the city of Abs in northern Hajjah province.
He said he has been displaced four times since the war started in 2014.
“I’ve lost my house, farmland, everything,” he said on the phone.
Three years ago, he lost a nine-month-old son. He has a 1 year old and a 3 year old who are starving.
Their main dish is bread mixed with water and salt. Some days neighbors give his family meat, chicken or pasta. Hussein is too poor to take his children to the hospital.
“There is no money and I am unemployed,” he said. “They can also starve to death.”
The UN food agency has cut rations for millions of people amid critical funding shortfalls and rising global food prices. For months, the World Food Program has prioritized the most vulnerable 13.5 million Yemenis, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA.
The UN said by the end of September its humanitarian response plan for Yemen had delivered $2 billion of the $4.27 billion needed to provide life-saving humanitarian aid and protection to 17.9 million people.
Abdulwasea Mohammed, advocacy, media and campaign manager for Oxfam in Yemen, said his group needs more money, more consistent access to the most vulnerable and a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
“Nevertheless, the response saves lives every day,” he said.
Magdy reported from Cairo.
JOIN THE CALL