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Fighting, starvation and disease yield grim crisis in Yemen

The United Nations calls Yemen the site of the worst humanitarian suffering in the world. Years of war have caused widespread starvation and disease; supply routes are blocked by fighting, and fuel and food prices have spiked. With the economy destroyed, many Yemenis cannot even afford transportation to the medical facilities they so desperately need. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • William Brangham:

    This month, the United Nations announced that 73,000 Yemenis are living under famine conditions, and millions more risk dying from hunger as the country's humanitarian crisis spirals downward.

    Since 2014, Yemen has been torn apart by a civil war, pitting rebels, who are allied with Iran, against the Yemeni government, which is allied with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, in turn, receives military support from the United States.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson managed to visit rebel-held areas for the "NewsHour" earlier this year, and she returned this month to provide this exclusive report on the worsening situation. And a warning: Some of the scenes in this story are very disturbing.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    When Ikram Bakil's mother removes her clothes, the extent of her suffering is clear. She is starving. Below the waist, her body shrinks away to nothing. This is what famine does to a 4-year-old child.

    Her mother, Aisha, cannot bear to watch her waste away. She is overcome by a wave of grief, as she tells us of her struggles to keep Ikram alive.

  • Aisha Nasser (through translator):

    My husband's family says I shouldn't worry about it. When I asked them to give me money, they said Allah will take care of her. I took her to the hospital. I sold a ring for $27 and got her treatment, but it didn't work. They sent us here, and now they are treating her, but she is still sick.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The war in Yemen has devastated the economy. Millions are out of work, and the price of food and fuel has spiked. It is home to the worst humanitarian suffering in the world, with countless families unable to feed themselves.

    The U.N. says two-thirds of Yemenis need food aid and millions are on the brink of famine. I came here in June and found unimaginable misery. Since then, fighting has intensified across the country, and I returned to find the crisis even worse.

    This hospital is in the capital, Sanaa. Only the lucky ones make it this far. Millions are stranded in rural areas. To find some of those, we headed out to Hajjah, high up in the North Yemen mountains, where the main regional medical center is overflowing with crowds of desperate parents and children.

    Here, we found Dr. Al Maqtali working hard to save lives. But she only has medicine to give them, when what they really need is food. So they come back again and again, worse each time.

    How do you feel whenever you are treating them?

  • Dr. Fatoum Al Maqtali:

    I am feeling very, very sad because I can't help them. When they came here in the outpatient, they are moderate malnourished. I cannot give them food. From where I will give them food?

    After that, they are coming to the ward with severe malnutrition. This is the process, moderate to severe and dying.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    So you are forced to watch them get worse.

  • Dr. Fatoum Al Maqtali:

    Yes.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    She's afraid this is only tip of the iceberg. Many of the worst cases, she doesn't see. That's because, even though the health care in Yemen is free, people cannot afford the cost of transportation to the hospital.

    Do you fear there's a lot that are still out there?

  • Dr. Fatoum Al Maqtali:

    Yes. For one coming here, there is 20 not coming, maybe 20, 30, 50. We don't know.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    We headed further into the countryside. Here at a basic rural clinic, parents waited in line for their children to get examined.

    They are all from the same area?

    The daily weighing and measuring of tiny arms comes to the same conclusion every time: When the tape shows red, it means severely malnourished.

    Driving deeper into the mountains, we learned of a family struggling to keep their newest born alive. Here, in their isolated community, they were living only on rice and prayers.

    Hamoud Abdullah is stunted and unresponsive. He has been malnourished his entire short life. Incredibly, he is 2 years old, but looks like he is just a few months. His mother, Amani, took him to the hospital once before.

  • Amani Ali Nasser (through translator):

    You could not imagine. When we brought him to the hospital, he was almost dead, and we thought he wouldn't survive. In the hospital, they said he was finished. They gave him oxygen and injections. We stayed for almost a month before returning home.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Now he is sick again, and there is no more money left for the journey back to the hospital. Yemen's mothers are surviving on one meal a day, often just bread and tea. They are not getting enough nutrition to be able to breast-feed, and their babies weaken and die.

    The cost of a simple bus fare has spiked as fuel prices increased due to the war. Half of the country's health facilities are shut, and even if families do make it to one, they then have to pay for a place to stay in the town while the child gets treatment.

    All too often, they leave the hospital too early, and return to a home where food remains scarce. It's not just hunger that claims the lives of Yemen's children. Diseases have taken hold here, too. Poor sanitation and living conditions as a result of the war have spawned the world's worst cholera outbreak. Every hospital now has to have cholera wards like this.

    Five-year-old Akram is barely conscious, suffering from dangerously severe dehydration. Nearby lies Wadah, also 5 years old. He has been hospitalized with cholera twice in the last month.

    The ward is full of women, mothers ill with the disease, all with children back home depending on them.

    Saba just arrived today with cholera. She has been sick for four days, and she just arrived today for treatment with cholera. She is one of five people to arrive into this clinic so far today.

    In the room next door lies 10-year-old Yasmine. Her breathing comes in painful gasps, as she struggles with the deadly disease diphtheria. It's an illness that doctors here never treated before, having been largely eradicated in Yemen with vaccinations. But this war has undone everything.

    In the four years the conflict has ravaged Yemen, the number of needy people has steadily increased. Most here need food donations. The way this war is being fought is directly causing the hunger here. An air, land and sea blockade on the rebel-controlled north of Yemen and Saudi-led campaign of airstrikes have brought the economy to its knees.

    Millions of households have lost their incomes, and food prices have increased. The rebels prevent aid workers from accessing areas near the front line, where many need their help. Nowhere else on Earth are so many people going hungry. And the U.N. is struggling to keep up.

  • Ali Qureshi:

    If I would plot it on a graph, it's going like this. And the question is, how much can be done? If every year the needs are going to go up, if we were feeding three million people two years ago, and today we are feeding eight million people, and next year we are going to feed 12 million people, where is it going to stop?

    The only way it will stop is when there is peace.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Even if the U.N. manages to feed 12 million people this coming year, 20 million need their help. That gap is a reality aid workers here simply have to accept.

  • Ali Qureshi:

    In many other places in the world, we would be feeding those people. In many other crises in the world, those people would be getting food assistance in an operation. But, in Yemen, it's just the scale of the needs is outpacing the capacity and the resources.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In Yemen, this suffering is manmade. The war is causing the famine.

    The majority of those killed in this conflict are dying of malnutrition and preventable diseases. The starving are the casualties, children like Ikram, the most innocent of victims.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson in Sanaa, Yemen.

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