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Yemen: Descending Into Despair

[Editor's Note: Five years ago, a Yemeni woman removed her veil in public while speaking at an event, asserting boldly, “This is who I am.” 

In a nation where woman traditionally cover all but their eyes, this was an act of courage, and the moment established her as one of the most progressive and pivotal figures in Yemen's struggle for progress. 

That woman, Tawakel Karman, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Thursday. The journalist, mother of three, and avid activist in Yemen’s “Change Square” is the nation’s first Nobel Prize winner. 

But she was not the only female fighting for freedom in Change Square. Jennifer Steil in the Fall 2011 issue of World Policy Journal meets Kawkab al-Thaibani, who—like Karman—is a female journalist and mother, protesting the Yemeni leadership in Change Square. The fact that women like al-Thaibani and Karman wield so much power in the protest movement is remarkable. No woman in Yemen has had any real political influence since Queen Arwa's death in 1138 AD.

Still, overlooked by the international community, the prospects for Yemen are grim. Steil provides an in-depth examination of the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen. A Nobel Prize for Karman and the women of Change Square won't be enough to avert disaster.]

By Jennifer Steil

SANA’A—It’s 2009. Dust from the recent bombings still hangs in the warm air of Sa’dah, a city 113 miles north of Yemen’s capital, just shy of the frontier with Saudi Arabia and the vast desert known as the Empty Quarter. A five-year-old girl stands crying in the street. Hungry, thirsty, and alone, she has been wandering in the ruins of her home, searching for her mother, father, or any other family members, all of whom have vanished in the devastating battles between the Houthi Shiite rebels and the government. She finds no one.

At last, someone finds her. An old woman stops to help the weeping child but is unable to discover who she is. The traumatized girl cannot give her own name or the name of anyone in her family.

“I will be your grandmother,” the woman, Mariam Hadi Ali, says to the girl. She calls her Hadiya, which means “gift” in Arabic. Together, the two flee Sa’dah, seeking refuge from the bitter conflict. They land in nearby Amran, where UNICEF has set up a small transit camp. By then Hadiya is acutely malnourished and requires two months of treatment with Plumpy’nut, a peanut-based, high-calorie paste created especially for famine victims.

She has stabilized nutritionally. But her other afflictions will be slower to heal. Hadiya, now seven, is psychologically scarred, says Rajia Sharhan, a Yemeni pediatrician and nutrition officer with UNICEF Yemen. While she has begun to play a little bit in the camp, she hardly speaks and usually hides behind her new grandmother. She has never attended school. She remembers nothing of her past and cannot return home.

Yemeni children have more to fear than starvation. Ongoing armed conflicts in many parts of the country terrorize their minds. Violence traumatizes everyone, but it’s far worse for children, says Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF’s representative in Yemen. Yemenis are growing up with bullets flying around their heads. It is not uncommon to see a child playing with the unexploded ammunition that litters the streets. Even refugees who do still have homes often cannot return. Landmines riddle the Sa’dah region, and many who have tried to return home have lost limbs in the process.

Of the more than 300,000 who have fled the conflict, most still live in camps. Among these is a family of 14 who in September 2009 fled Sa’dah, the capital of the northernmost province, with only what they could carry. Mohammed al-Mogny, his two wives, their nine children under the age of five, and a set of grandparents left their cows, sheep, and chickens behind and walked for two and a half days before settling in a deserted area called al-Mazraq. Within a month, some 10,000 others had followed them there, gathering where they found familiar faces. By the time they arrived in al-Mazraq, all nine children were suffering from varying degrees of starvation. The seven-month-old twin boys, Saleh and Ali, were close to death. The grandmother, Haleema Saleh, was looking after all nine children, as the mothers were busy fetching wood and water and doing the cooking. It was she who got them treatment from UNICEF. The boys were hospitalized and the rest of the children treated with Plumpy’nut until they recovered.

These are the lucky few. Those unable to find their way to the few functioning refugee camps are not faring as well. Often, they live far from treatment centers and cannot afford to travel. Recent fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices have made car travel all but impossible. A journey that cost $2.50 a year ago now costs $40, so parents often wait until their children are in crisis before seeking help. Fuel shortages also mean that even the camps cannot get water, as it must be transported in trucks or pumped from the ground using gasoline-powered pumps.

[To read the rest of the article, click here ]

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Jennifer Steil is the former editor of the Sana’a-based newspaper the Yemen Observer and the author of The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, An American Woman’s Adventures in the Oldest City on Earth. She lived in Yemen for four years.

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