Three-year-old Walid sits on a hospital bed, his bones and veins visible through his skin, tugging at the intravenous drip that is keeping him alive.
He’s one of only five kids being treated for malnutrition at a hospital in the Yemeni city of Taiz. It’s not that more children don’t need help – both Taiz City and the wider province have been hard hit by what the UN calls the worst humanitarian crisis in the world – but treatment (or even transport to the doctor) costs money that many in Yemen no longer have.
Walid was born only a few months before Yemen’s war broke out in March 2015. His father lost his job soon after. Sitting near her emaciated son, Walid’s mother Hindia says her family has struggled to buy enough food since the fighting broke out, and she was undernourished while nursing her son.
“I told my husband that Walid was hungry, but he couldn’t help because the price of formula was [so] high,” she explains. “Walid has been suffering since his birth.”
So while Yemen’s hunger crisis began finally making headlines in November as a Saudi Arabian-led coalition closed borders, ports, and airports in response to a Houthi rocket attack on Riyadh – warnings of famine and pictures of emaciated children like Walid made the front pages –
Hindia knows first-hand that Yemen has been slowly crashing towards catastrophe for years.
Eighteen million Yemenis in a country of more than 29 million are now classified as “food insecure”, with nearly 400,000 children in a state of “severe acute malnutrition”. And with a new battle looming, the prospects for millions of Yemenis – including young Walid – are bleak.
On this occasion, Hindia eventually found a wealthy family from her village to pay for her son’s treatment, but she is really worried about his future: “Next time, I might not,” she tells IRIN. “Walid could die at any time.”
Yemen’s war is complicated. It has been marked by a number of shifting alliances and dramatic events, such as the 4 December death of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
During his 30 years of power, Saleh often battled the Houthi rebels with whom he later joined forces to fight those loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognised (but deposed) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and a Saudi Arabian-led coalition.
Devastating airstrikes by the coalition began in March 2015, with a high proportion of civilian casualties. To make it even more confusing, Saleh turned against the Houthis shortly before his death and appeared ready to talk with his opponents.
As much as the alliances on the ground are labyrinthine (the above is really just the beginning), the reasons Yemenis are starving are shockingly simple. In many cases, the economic collapse means families simply don’t have enough money to buy food.
For more than a year now, most public sector employees have gone unpaid. Others have lost their jobs when uprooted by violence (that’s what happened to Walid’s father), and others still work in sectors that no longer exist.
Take Basher al-Thobati, a father of six in his fifties who IRIN found perusing goods at a central Taiz market. He’s a construction worker but has had little work of late. Due to the sharp rise in prices – thanks to both inflation and a run on supplies after the latest border closures – he, like so many other would-be shoppers, was forced to turn away from the market empty-handed.
Before heading home, al-Thobati explained why the food crisis gripping his country was so important. “We can live amidst the fighting. We can hide from the shells and bullets. But we can’t flee the expense,” he said. “We have to buy food at any price. If the war doesn’t kill us, the [food price increases] will.”
In a war that until recently was a stalemate, Taiz never really had a respite from violence, with some parts of the city also suffering from a series of sieges by Houthi rebels that have cut off goods and aid.
But Yemen as a whole, which imports 80-90 percent of its food, has been slowly breaking under the weight of restrictions on imports imposed by the Saudi-led coalition.
The recent closures, which the coalition says were imposed to prevent arms smuggling to the Houthis from Iran, were eased in phases. The key Red Sea ports of Hodeidah and Saleef were not immediately opened for business to commercial imports of food and fuel, and the country’s other main port – Aden – is simply not equipped to store and mill grain on the scale that Yemen needs to bring it in.
In December, the World Food Programme warned that if all ports were not allowed to work in full, “we will have a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe of a much larger magnitude than we currently face… It will be beyond the control of the humanitarian community."
Even with commercial food and fuel imports restarted, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) recently said “sustained imports of essential goods is critically needed, predicting that “even in the absence of additional distruptions, populations may move into catastrophe… as worst-affected households begin to exhaust their coping capacity.”
Now, a battle threatens Hodeidah, and not for the first time. There will likely be a fresh spate of warnings about an imminent catastrophe. These statements are repeated so often about Yemen that they can begin to sound hollow. But for families like Walid’s, the spectre of famine is all too real.