Yemen: border closure threatens aid effort

Manchester-based anaesthetist returns from humanitarian mission

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Saudi Arabia’s decision to close the borders of Yemen is preventing humanitarian assistance reaching the war-ravaged country that has only recently started to contain its cholera epidemic, say aid organisations.

Saudi Arabia has been at war with Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015 and closed the borders last week to stop arms flowing from Iran, following the interception of a missile attack on Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, has urged the Saudi-led coalition to reopen aid channels into Yemen, saying it threatens the lives of millions of people.

According to the UN, Yemen imports 90 per cent of its daily needs while seven million people are kept alive by humanitarian aid that comes from overseas, through organisations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). MSF alone has brought in 3,031 tonnes of medical supplies, together with nearly 1,600 staff.

On 6 November, the Saudi-led coalition said all Yemeni border crossings, sea ports and airports would be closed immediately but that it would consider “the entry and exit of humanitarian supplies and crews”. So far this promise has not been upheld.

Between March and August, MSF teams treated 91,645 patients – 15 per cent of the cholera cases reported in Yemen. It established and supported 22 cholera treatment centres and units in nine Yemeni governorates.

The blockade of the borders threatens its ability to keep providing supplies and could hinder the progress made. MSF has warned that even though the number of cholera patients has decreased significantly – it has recently begun closing down some treatment units – the outbreak is not over and remains a major problem particularly in the northern parts of the country.

In a statement MSF said: “Over the last three days, the Saudi-led coalition has not allowed MSF flights into Yemen, directly hindering the organisation’s ability to provide life-saving medical and humanitarian assistance to a population already in dire need.”

Manchester based anaesthetist Dr Sarah O’Neill, who was part of the humanitarian effort led by MSF in Yemen, said: “We had everything we needed. MSF had a very impressive logistics department which kept us well-supplied with everything.”

“We were seeing gunshot injuries and blast injuries every day there.”

Dr O’Neill, who returned from Yemen less than a month ago, worked with a team of surgeons that would perform 10-20 operations a day. Patients were mostly men, with about 20 per cent being women and 10 per cent children.

“Medically it’s challenging as in the things you see are different,” said Dr O’Neill. “We were seeing gunshot injuries and blast injuries every day there – that remains rare in the UK. You get patients who stepped on landmines and had their legs blown off. I’ve never seen that here.

“Then there’s the challenge of being in a conflict environment and therefore not being free to move around, so we had to stay in the hospital compound pretty much all the time. We lived on the floor above the hospital.

“You can feel quite trapped and enclosed but that becomes insignificant when you think of the challenges that the population are facing. I can live after a month and come home, but they are suffering with food insecurity, risks from violence going on, difficult access to healthcare and they have no way of walking away from that.”

Dr O’Neill had been to Yemen twice before, in 2011 and 2013 – “a beautiful, fascinating country” – and also worked in conflict zones in Libya and Afghanistan.

She praised the efforts of her Yemeni counterparts in treating a population weakened by war, recovering from a cholera epidemic and fighting famine.

“Like in most situations where populations are put under stress in many ways the best of people comes out and communities do pull together,” she said. “If you talk to the staff there about the situation, particularly in the height of the fighting in 2015, they all just stayed in the hospital for literally 24 hours and worked around the clock.

“Sometimes I think to myself: ‘Gosh, would I be that committed if there was a war here? Would I go and live in my hospital and work 24 hours a day?’ I’m not sure I would, so the staff there humble me completely.”

Readjusting to her day job as a consultant anaesthetist at Salford Royal has proven to be challenging as well.

“In some ways it’s lovely to come back because one of the nice things about going somewhere where there is a difficult situation is that you start to appreciate what you have here. But it is hard, because you realise how much you take for granted. I get frustrated with myself at how easy it is to slip back to into that.”

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