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In Yemen, war and disease conspire to produce “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”


Stringer | AFP

John Burger - published on 08/25/17

Vatican representative to region reports on difficulty getting aid into the country.

A cholera outbreak in Yemen has infected more than half a million persons, and the country’s humanitarian crisis has gotten so bad that one local describes it as a “slow death.”

“We’re just waiting for doom or for a breakthrough from heaven,” Yakoub al-Jayefi, a Yemeni soldier whose 6-year-old daughter, Shaima, was being treated for malnutrition at a clinic in the Yemeni capital, Sana, told the New York Times.

Two-and-a-half years of war in Yemen, at the southern end of the Arabian peninsula, have destroyed the country’s infrastructure and led to 2,000 deaths from cholera.

“It is true that the whole health situation is disastrous,” said Bishop Paul Hinder, O.F.M. Cap., Vicar Apostolic of Southern Arabia, in an interview with Aleteia Thursday. “It’s very, very difficult to get help into the country because of the war.”

“This is the world’s worst cholera outbreak in the midst of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” said a joint statement by UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake, World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley and World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, following their joint visit to Yemen last month.

Bishop Hinder said the situation has prevented him from traveling to Yemen. He reported that there is “no Church institution” in the country right now “because there are no priests.”

“There is no church building working because churches in Aden have been partly or fully destroyed,” he said from his office in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. “A few faithful are gathering privately, and there are two communities of the Missionaries of Charity.”

He declined to elaborate because the situation is dangerous for those in the country. The Missionaries of Charity have suffered at least two attacks in Yemen over the last two decades. In July 1998, a gunman shot and killed three nuns as they left a hospital in the city of Al Hudaydah, and four nuns were killed by militants at their convent in Aden in March 2016.

“Truly, truly horrendous,” is how Megan Gilbert, Catholic Relief Services’ communications officer for Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia, described the situation. “CRS does not have a presence in Yemen, but we are working closely to support the work of our local partner, Islamic Relief Yemen.”

A spokesman for Islamic Relief USA, Minhaj Hassan, said that CRS  provided a $250,000 grant to Islamic Relief to help facilitate food and medicine distribution. “The grant will enable Islamic Relief to feed more than 24,000 malnourished children under the age of 5,” Hassan said. “The people live in the country’s Hudayah, Amran and Sa’ada provinces.” The biggest challenges include “providing all the assistance that is necessary, as so many people are affected.”

“Complicating that mission is the fact that Yemen remains a conflict zone,” Hassan said.

The Times said that Yemen, long the Arab world’s poorest country, has suffered from frequent local armed conflicts. “The most recent trouble started in 2014, when the Houthis, rebels from the north, allied with parts of the Yemeni military and stormed the capital, forcing the internationally recognized government into exile,” the paper explained.

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab nations launched a military campaign aimed at pushing back the Houthis and restoring the government. The campaign has so far failed to do so, and the country remains split between Houthi-controlled territory in the west and land controlled by the government and its Arab backers in the south and east. Many coalition airstrikes have killed and wounded civilians, including strikes on Wednesday around the capital. The bombings have also heavily damaged Yemen’s infrastructure, including a crucial seaport and important bridges as well as hospitals, sewage facilities and civilian factories. Services that Yemenis have depended on are gone, and the destruction has undermined the country’s already weak economy. It has also made it harder for humanitarian organizations to bring in and distribute aid. … As garbage has piled up and sewage systems have failed, more Yemenis are relying on easily polluted wells for drinking water. Heavy rains since April accelerated the wells’ contamination.

The World Health Organization said that the total number of suspected cholera cases in Yemen for 2017 hit the half a million mark Aug. 13, and that “nearly 2,000 people have died since the outbreak began to spread rapidly at the end of April.”

“A collapsing health system is struggling to cope, with more than half of all health facilities closed due to damage, destruction or lack of funds,” the agency said.

Bishop Hinder said that as long as there is no understanding among the conflicting sides in the war, it will be difficult to “prevent this destruction. I hope that in spite of the situation people will get to a kind of agreement.”

The Times reported that peace talks brokered by the United Nations have stalled, and that none of the warring parties has indicated much willingness to back down.

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