By Declan Walsh
Many Yemenis can no longer afford to buy food. A woman in the poor mountain village of Al Juberia. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
SANA, Yemen — At a restaurant here in the Yemeni capital, a waiter brought bowls of lamb served with mounds of rice. For dessert there was kunafa, a golden brown pastry filled with cheese.
An hour later I was back at work, in a hospital ward filled with malnourished children, hanging between life and death. If that juxtaposition strikes you as distasteful, it felt that way to me, too.
Crisis zones are often places of contrast, but in Yemen the gulf is particularly uncomfortable. The problem isn’t a lack of food; it’s that few can afford to buy it. Years of blockades, bombs and soaring inflation have crushed the economy.
As a result, beggars congregate outside supermarkets filled with goods; markets are filled with produce in towns where the hungry eat boiled leaves; and restaurants selling rich food are a few hundred meters from hunger wards.
Journalists travel with moneyto pay for hotels, transport and translation. Should I offer to help? It’s a question some readers asked after we published a recent article on Yemen’s looming famine. Many were touched by a photograph by Tyler Hicks of Amal Hussain, an emaciated 7-year-old girl whose haunting stare brought the war’s human cost into focus. And many were devastated to learn that Amal died a few days after we left. Why didn’t we do something to save her, they wanted to know.
Reporters are trained to bear witness; aid workers and doctors have the job of helping people. Donating money can be fraught with ethical, moral and practical complications. But every day in Yemen someone told me something that made a lump rise in my throat. Usually it was a mundane detail, like the lack of a few dollars to take a dying child to the hospital. Yemen, you realize, is a country where people are dying for lack of a taxi fare.
Yemenis have to navigate such terrain, too. While some are dying, others are getting on with living. One night we returned to our hotel in Hajjah. Lying in bed, I was startled by a loud bang then a burst of light that filled the sky — not a bomb, but fireworks. Since the start of the war, the rate of marriage has gone up. And so, in this town where malnourished infants were perishing, others were dancing and celebrating through the night.
But the surge in weddings was a survival mechanism. The hand of a daughter in marriage brings a price, so weddings can be a source of income. Disturbingly, many of the brides are children.
As we crossed Yemen — from the battle-scarred port of Hudaydah to the Houthi-held mountains — a1,450-kilometer journey — we saw scenes of heartbreaking suffering and customs that endure.
Town centers bustled with men buying khat, the narcotic leaf beloved by Yemenis. The khat bazaars are a social event. Still, Yemeni society is being ravaged by war. Airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition, aided by American bombs, have killed thousands of civilians, and displaced more. But war strikes most in quieter ways. Bombs blow up factories, killing jobs, causing the currency to crumble and prices to soar.
As we drove away from the small hospital in Aslam, where Amal was being treated, we passed a young couple on the side of the road. They were holding a small infant. We stopped. They squeezed into the passenger seat — the father, Khalil Hadi, enveloped by the black cloak of his wife, Hanna, who held their fragile 9-month-old son, Wejdan, who had just been released from the malnutrition ward.
Theirs was a typical story. Their home near the Saudi border had been bombed, so they rented a room near Aslam. Mr. Hadi tried to earn money driving a motorbike taxi, and by foraging for wood to sell at the market. But it wasn’t enough. Their diet was reduced to bread, tea and halas, the vine that grew locally. His wife was four months pregnant with their second child. Mr. Hadi wasn’t looking for pity; many people were in similar trouble, he said. “I’d do anything to make some money,” he said. “The situation is so hard.”
At a junction in the road, the couple stepped out, offered thanks and began to walk away. I called them back. I pulled out a wad of Yemeni notes — about $15 worth — and pressed it into his hand. It seemed so futile. What could it buy them? A few days respite, if even that?
© 2018 New York Times News Service