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Stalked by death: How rising food insecurity is killing war-torn Yemen’s children

Nearly seven years of war in Yemen have produced the world's most dire humanitarian catastrophe. Millions are starving and have little in the way of medical care. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson has spent years traveling in and out of the country. She reports from between the rebel-held capital, Sana'a, and the last government stronghold, Marib, where she witnessed the worst conditions yet.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nearly seven years of war in Yemen have produced the world's most dire humanitarian catastrophe. Millions are starving, not only without food to eat, but little in the way of medical care for those most in need.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson has spent years traveling in and out of the country. This time, she traveled between the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, and the last government stronghold, Marib. She witnessed the worst conditions yet.

  • And a warning:

    Some viewers may find images in this report upsetting.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Barely conscious, Muraud Okab (ph) silently fights to live beyond his 13 years. He had intestinal surgery in this Yemeni hospital three months ago. His recovery has been painful and worryingly slow.

    The surgery left him unable to eat normal food. His father, Muhammad Ali (ph), can rarely find the specialized nutrition he needs. And even if he could, he can't afford it.

    So, he is showing me the bill for the surgery for his son. It's about $3,000. They have given a reduction down to make it more like $2,500. He doesn't have the money.

    Muhammad Ali was a carpenter before the war started six years ago and hasn't had a day of work since then.

    "Every four days, I pay this one," he tells us. "Every day for the treatment, I pay this one."

    This is just bill after bill after bill here.

    The "NewsHour" first reported on Muraud's condition back in March. Following up with his father in person, it is clear he is not improving.

    When Muraud got sick he drove to Yemen's capital, Sanaa, with him in his car, before selling it to try pay for the surgery, the only thing of any monetary value he owned gladly sold to save the most priceless thing in his life. But it wasn't enough. He's now deep in debt and with other children waiting for him back home.

    Sabeen Hospital hosts Sanaa's largest children's ward. It used to give free treatment to malnourished and sick children, the final hope for poor families. But in the last six months, funding from aid agencies like UNICEF has slowed to a trickle, and the hospital simply cannot afford to operate for free anymore.

    Nishwa Mahfout is a final year medical student, working here without salary and fighting to save a generation of babies. She watches parents walk out of here with sick and dying children every day.

    When you see a child leave this ward, how much faith do you have that they are going to survive long term?

  • Nishwa Mahfout:

    A lot of people, when they go, when they — when we treat them, they don't have the money enough, or it's very expensive for them. They go and they never return. And they go to die in their homes, because they don't have expense of the drugs or the hospital.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Do you see that? People run out of money here and they have to leave?

  • Nishwa Mahfout:

    A lot, a lot. They are almost 90 percent.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Ninety percent?

  • Nishwa Mahfout:

    They don't have — yes, a lot of people, because it's a local hospital. And the only people who get here is the poor, not only the poor, the poorest people get here, and they don't have the resources.

    The only that they have — even they don't have enough food for that day. And we ask them to buy drugs, costing them a month, a month.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    It costs them a monthly income?

  • Nishwa Mahfout:

    Yes, exactly.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    And so when they leave, do you ask them to stay? Like, do you — how do you react to people leaving when the baby is not well yet?

  • Nishwa Mahfout:

    I become very sad and asking for my — by myself, asking, can I help them? I say, how many can I help? If I help one, I can't help all of them.'

  • Jane Ferguson:

    As Yemen's brutal war and the humanitarian catastrophe it wrought enters its seventh year, international aid is not close to keeping up with the vast needs here.

    The global COVID crisis and economic austerity from donor countries has reduced pledges. Yet nowhere on Earth are so many people going hungry. Tens of thousands are already living with famine, the highest level of hunger in the United Nations' official scale.

    Never before in history have so many been on the level just below, with the aid agencies literally keeping five million of Yemen's population of 30 million alive.

  • Laurent Bukera:

    In Yemen, actually, two thirds — I repeat — two thirds of the population is food-insecure somehow.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Laurent Bukera is Yemen country director for the U.N.'s World Food Program.

  • Laurent Bukera:

    We have almost half of the country, which is one step away from the highest possible classification of hunger. And I think that's unprecedented.

    And, for us, what is the — what is — really frighten us is, as you know in other contexts, if one waits for famine to be declared, it's actually too late. And doing that with half of the population close, as close as can be to the precipice is something we cannot do.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In Northern Yemen, Houthi rebels are fighting the internationally recognized Yemeni government, which is supported by Saudi airpower.

    The Houthis are allied with and supported by Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival.

    The Saudis impose a partial blockade around rebel-held areas to try to deny the Houthis vital income and weapons, but that has brought the economy to its knees and starved civilians as well. Most people in Yemen live in rebel-held territory, where millions have been left destitute and unable to afford food.

    The Houthis also have attempted to tax, regulate and control the aid coming in, worsening the situation throughout 2020.

  • Laurent Bukera:

    So, for us, for the World Food Program, from April 2020, we had to reduce our intervention. And in the north, we are, unfortunately, assisting on every other month. So, basically, it's not every month that we provide the assistance. We provide it every alternate month.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Relations between the World Food Program and the Houthis have improved since. But other aid agencies say their work is hampered by constant demands from the rebels for security permits and endless paperwork.

    The Houthi authorities in Sanaa also restricted our movements, and we were carefully monitored as we worked.

    Civilians on both sides of this war bear the cost of it. Across the front lines, in Marib province, tens of thousands of people who fled Houthi advances now live in camps on the government side. This mobile clinic is funded by the U.N. and serves pregnant and breastfeeding women.

    On a sparse diet, few manage to breastfeed at all, leaving babies stunted, unable to walk, and stalked by death. Safia is 20 years old and couldn't breast-feed her youngest baby.

  • Safia Ahmed (through translator):

    I got pregnant with this boy when this one was 6 months old. This boy is 1 year and 8 months old now, and he cannot walk or stand.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The food offered is emergency soy meal and sugar for the women.

    They take it for six months, the first six months of breastfeeding the baby.

    The cutbacks in WFP handouts are biting. Each family gets flour, cooking oil, sugar and salt. If they have nothing else, they will have to live on tea and bread. Life is made up of long days spent waiting to go home.

    Saleh Mohammed doesn't have much faith in waiting any more. He built this small cinder block house in place of a tent a month ago. He's only three miles away from his home village, but with fighting raging there, it may as well be 1,000 miles. He, like many others here, is watching what the United States can and will do in the recent push for peace here.

  • Saleh Mohammed (through translator):

    We think the new president, Joe Biden, is much better than the last one towards Yemen. He wants to stop the war in Yemen, unlike the last one.

    We hope to be able to go back home, but thousands of families have left their houses, and they were destroyed because of war.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Even the idea of rebuilding seems like a faraway dream in this place. At dusk, the sun sets over the hills and is replaced by a full moon. The children play under its light, as their parents rest in their tents, readying themselves for another day to come, one more day of surviving this war.

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

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