Saudi Arabia’s Cruel Stranglehold on Yemen

By Lama Fakih, AMnesty International Crisis Resposne Team. Follow Lama on Twitter @lamamfakih

As the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen resumed earlier this week, after a brief ceasefire, hospitals across the capital were getting ready to treat an influx of the wounded despite dwindling supplies of medicine and fuel. Doctors were going over detailed lists of needed medications, recruiting volunteer staff, and making black-market deals for overpriced diesel and fuel to keep generators and ambulances running. Some staff were taking up residence in the hospital to avoid the time and cost of travel to and fro.

But despite their best efforts, the needs of the war wounded far outweigh the services these medical workers can provide. Sanaa’s publicly-run Kuwait Hospital was one of several hospitals where staff said they had to send patients away, because essential equipment had become inoperable without electricity or fuel for generators.

I visited the hospital during a power outage. During the visit, an injured woman told me she had lost her adult son in an explosion in the Mount Nogum neighborhood of Sanaa on May 11. Shrapnel severed his head “like a sword,” she said. The blast had been triggered by an airstrike on a weapons storage facility in the neighborhood.

During the five-day ceasefire last week, I visited nine hospitals to gauge how they had been coping since the war began nearly two months ago. The medical workers at the hospitals I visited articulated the same challenges: no electricity for weeks, limited diesel to operate generators, a lack of hospital staff, and, critically, few medical supplies to treat the ill and wounded. They warned that ill and wounded civilians were paying the price for the restrictions imposed by the Saudi-led led coalition on life-saving assistance and basic goods needed for survival.

Amid dozens of anxious family members, beleaguered doctors and nurses were treating patients with whatever resources were at hand. In the al-Thawra hospital, where space was limited to treat the wounded, doctors were using corridors and waiting rooms for treatment.

Most of the civilian victims — including many children — had been injured by shrapnel. This had come from anti-aircraft weaponry fire that missed its target, failed to detonate in the air, and exploded on impact on the ground; from secondary explosions caused by airstrikes; and from the airstrikes themselves. Everywhere, I heard the same urgent demand for fuel to drive the generators that were the hospitals’ only source of power, and were needed to pump water.

“The diesel is running out,” a doctor at the Mutawakal private hospital told me. “We are having to buy it on the black market. We may have to close in a month if things continue like this.”

As a result of the fuel shortage, women experiencing complications in childbirth had been turned away, she said, and incubators in the hospital had been turned off. In another case, staff tried to resuscitate a patient experiencing cardiac arrest but could not place him on a ventilator. The patient died. The hospital, like so many others, was also suffering from a lack of vital medical supplies including antibiotics, painkillers, bandages, and blood.

The harsh and arbitrary restrictions imposed by the Saudi-led coalition on importing vital supplies, including fuel, have slowed to a trickle the flow of life-saving assistance and basic goods needed for survival. The World Food Programme (WFP) says it has managed to ship some 300,000 liters of fuel and other supplies into the country during the humanitarian ceasefire. But this shipment is only a fraction of the amount needed for the WFP’s operations in one month.

In a rare joint public statement, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders on May 4 expressed deep concern about the obstruction of deliveries of humanitarian aid, noting that the coalition’s restrictions on imports, “have made the daily lives of Yemenis unbearable, and their suffering immense.”

At al-Thawra hospital, doctors gave me a wish list of more than 100 vital medicines and supplies that they had run out of or were running low on. The hospital is the largest one treating the wounded in Sanaa — yet it is doing so with fewer and fewer staff. Doctors there said more than 300 foreign colleagues of theirs had left since the war began. The remaining local staff were often unable to reach the hospital because of insecurity, internal displacement, or petrol shortages arising from the conflict. As a result, the doctors I met had sometimes been working double and triple shifts — persisting despite a sense of futility over a war that keeps on bringing new wounded to their door.

The Saudi-led coalition should immediately facilitate further deliveries of fuel and life-saving assistance to Yemen. Ansar Allah and other armed groups operating on the ground should ensure this material is distributed unimpeded to the hospitals and humanitarian agencies that need it most.

The lives of Yemen’s civilians depend on it.

This op-ed was originally published in Foreign Policy.