Yemen in Focus: Tragedy strikes pregnant mothers and newborns

Yemen in Focus: Tragedy strikes pregnant mothers and newborns
This week we look at deadly clashes in Taiz, Yemen's 'split' central bank, a resurgence in cholera and yet more threats by Houthi rebels.
7 min read
26 April, 2019
More than a 1,000 newborns have died in just two years [Getty]
A new report by Médecins Sans Frontières [MSF] this week has revealed that sick children and pregnant women in Yemen's third largest city, Taiz, are struggling to get access to medical care, resulting in the untimely deaths of more than a thousand of the country's most vulnerable. 

Conditions set up as a result of the conflict, including the lack of functioning health facilities, difficulties in reaching them, and inability to afford alternatives, has led to the death of at least 36 mothers and 1,529 children between 2016 and 2018.

The figures focused on just two hospitals, including MSF's Taiz Houban hospital in Taiz governorate, and the MSF-supported Abs hospital in the Hajjah governorate, the organisation said.

"Many people have to cross frontlines, pass through no-man's land or negotiate their way through multiple checkpoints in order to reach a hospital that is still functional," the organisation said, noting that 1,018 of the total number of children that died were newborns.

A journey to the hospital that would usually have taken patients just 10 minutes has been increased to six hours because of the war.

"This distance from medical care is a big problem," says Sadeqa, a MSF midwife at Abs hospital. "Patients are prevented from travelling because of airstrikes and clashes, and they do not go out at night because they are afraid they could be attacked. Once a car was hit by an airstrike, killing everyone inside."  

Most medical services, which were relatively affordable, were provided by private health facilities prior to the conflict. But the situation is very different for Yemenis living through the war today.

"The ability of Yemenis to access healthcare of any kind has dramatically diminished, as the conflict has ravaged the economy and devalued people's savings, leaving the vast majority dependent on what limited public healthcare is available," the report said.

Non-enemy clashes?

Outside of the hospital's densely packed lobbies, clashes between armed groups loyal to the internationally recognised government of Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi erupted. Yes, that's right. Saudi-led coalition backed, pro-government militias are fighting each other.

Schools have closed interrupting annual exams, families are hiding in basements and men are using mosque microphones appealing to militias to cease fire

"Clashes are between salafist militia of Abu Al-Abbas militia and militias of the Islah Party. The latter are working as security forces," local journalist Fuad Rajeh told The New Arab, adding that "the situation is very complicated."

The clashes killed at least five civilians, including a child, and injured at least 91 others in nearly a week of clashes, MSF said.

The flare up in violence around residential neighbourhoods triggered an exodus of locals attempting to flee the battles. 

"Schools have closed interrupting annual exams, families are hiding in basements and men are using mosque microphones appealing to militias to cease fire," Rajeh added.

Cholera resurgence

But violence is not the only battle facing Yemenis in the region's poorest state.

Earlier this week, Oxfam warned Yemen risks a "massive resurgence" of cholera, with around 195,000 suspected cases of the disease recorded so far this year. 

"Fears that the world's worst cholera outbreak could be set for a massive resurgence are growing," the relief organisation said on Thursday. Aid agencies were struggling to reach suspected cases, it added.

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Oxfam pointed to "fighting and restraints on access, including checkpoints and permit requirements imposed by the warring parties", and warned the coming rainy season was likely to accelerate the spread of the disease.

The waterborne bacterial infection has claimed more than 3,000 lives in Yemen since the outbreak began in 2016, according to Oxfam. 

Last month, the UN's humanitarian coordination office OCHA said that children under the age of five make up nearly a third of this year's cases.

The spike, which comes two years after Yemen suffered its worst cholera outbreak, was concentrated in six governorates including in the Red Sea port of Hodeida and Sanaa province, both combat zones, it said.

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A 'split' central bank

Meanwhile, the central bank of Yemen announced it will supply banks with foreign currency to ease the flow of much-needed goods into the country, Reuters reported this week.

The central bank is divided into two along the lines of the warring side. In the southern port of Aden, the Saudi-backed government's central bank rivals that of the Houthi rebels in Sanaa.

This split has inevitably led to payment problems, worsening an incredibly dire situation described by the UN as the "world's worst humanitarian crisis".

But the Aden branch (that's the Hadi branch) "issued a circular saying it was ready to sell banks foreign currency at a rate of 506 rials to the US dollar or at market rates", according to Yemeni news source cited by Reuters.

This would cover "letters of credit and financing guarantees" to allow for import of goods not covered by Saudi Arabia's $2 billion grant.

Detained migrants

Also in Yemen's temporary capital Aden, Yemeni security officials say police have detained at least 5,000 migrants attempting to cross into Saudi Arabia in the last ten days alone.

Officials said on Wednesday that the migrants, most of whom are from African countries, were being held in overcrowded police stations across the southern city of Aden.

Colonel Mohammed Muti, the chief of police of the Sheikh Othman district of Aden, told The New Arab that the security operation targeting migrants was prompted by a "remarkable increase in numbers".

He said that the migrants "enter Aden inconspicuously by sea with the help of smugglers who are active throughout the Yemeni coast."

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Aden's Security Chief Shalal Shaye says the migrants have launched a hunger strike and confirmed authorities are seeking assistance from the UN migration agency as well as aid groups.

Migrants from the Horn of Africa continue to travel to Yemen in a bid to land jobs in the oil-rich Gulf despite the four-year war between the Saudi-led coalition supporting the government of Hadi and the Houthi rebels. 

Groups of African migrants are regularly seen protesting in small numbers in the Khormaksar district of Aden, near a heavily guarded and barricaded area housing international organisations and UN agencies – as seen during my last trip to Aden in February. The International Migration Organisation says that 150,000 African immigrants arrived in Yemen in 2018.

More Houthi threats

And finally, just to cover all bases – over to the Houthi rebels in Sanaa who (again) have threatened to strike Saudi and Emirati capitals.

The rebels warned the Saudi-led alliance against escalating violence in the main Yemeni port city of Hodeida, threatening to launch missiles that could reach Riyadh, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the group's leader said.

"Our missiles are capable of reaching Riyadh and beyond Riyadh, to Dubai and Abu Dhabi," Abdul Malik al-Houthi told Houthi-run Masirah TV.

"It is possible to target strategic, vital, sensitive and influential targets in the event of any escalation in Hodeida," he said. "We are able to strongly shake the Emirati economy."

Last month, similar threats were made by the rebel military spokesman Yahya Saree who said the group has "aerial photographs and the coordinates of dozens of headquarters, facilities and military bases of the enemy".

"The legitimate targets of our forces extend to the capital of Saudi Arabia and to the emirate of Abu Dhabi," capital of the UAE, he said.

"We have manufactured advanced generations of attack aircraft, and new systems will soon be functional." 

The Houthi rebels have repeatedly fired ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia and even claimed attacks on airports in Abu Dhabi and Dubai – an allegation quickly and swiftly denied by the tourism-obsessed Emiratis.

Earlier this month, Saudi air defences intercepted two drones launched by Houthi rebels from neighbouring Yemen but debris wounded five civilians, including a child, the Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels said.

More news from Yemen, same time, same place – next week.

Sana Uqba is a journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Sanasiino 

Yemen In Focus is a new, regular feature from The New Arab.