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Survival is a struggle in the rubble of Yemen’s war

With its infrastructure broken, the constant threat of starvation and a failed state, Yemen is on the brink of collapse. Less than half of its health facilities are functional amid a health crisis that has seen epidemics of preventable and largely eradicated diseases like cholera. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we return to our series Inside Yemen.

    Tonight, a look at a failed state, collapsing because of actions by humans.

    War has raged since 2015 between Shiite Houthi rebels backed by Iran and Yemen’s government backed by a Saudi-led coalition. The Houthis control large areas of Yemen, including the capital, Sanaa. Their conquest reach as far south as the port city of Aden. They were forced from Aden by the coalition, which includes the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates. The Emiratis still control the city, which creates friction with Yemen’s government.

    Meantime, the vast majority of Yemen’s 29 million people suffer from critical food shortages, a lack of fuel, and a health care sector in crisis.

    Tonight, again in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Here in the neonatal ward of Aden’s Al-Sadaqa Hospital, mothers take turns looking after their babies, filling in the gaps of a broken health system and a skeleton staff.

    So, you have 43 babies, and how much staff do you have?

  • Dr. Ines Mohammed Aklan (through translator):

    Three.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Ines Mohammed Aklan runs the ward where vital electricity to power incubators and oxygenators comes and goes.

    Dr. Ines says she loses almost a quarter of the premature babies that arrive to her ward within hours.

    This baby was brought in just a week ago, premature. His lungs aren’t fully formed yet. But he’s in severe respiratory distress, he’s just over three pounds. Right now, he has oxygen.

    Today you have electricity.

  • Dr. Ines Mohammed Aklan:

     Yes, yes.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    But tomorrow?

  • Dr. Ines Mohammed Aklan:

     Don’t know.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Less than half of Yemen’s health facilities are functional, amid a health crisis that has seen epidemics of preventable and largely eradicated diseases, like cholera and diphtheria.

    Public hospitals exist on few resources, relying on international aid groups for supplies.

    All of these medications came from outside.

  • Dr. Ines Mohammed Aklan:

     Yes.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    What would you have if you were only relying on the Ministry of Health?

  • Dr. Ines Mohammed Aklan:

     Empty, empty place.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    It would be empty?

  • Dr. Ines Mohammed Aklan:

     Empty, yes.

  • (through translator):

    It feels like we’re begging. Everything comes from the aid groups, supplies, teaching. The government is doing nothing.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Yemen’s entire infrastructure was badly broken when the war against Houthi rebels began in 2015. Now it’s on the brink of collapse. A bankrupt central bank means thousands of public sector workers, doctors, teachers, go with little or no salary for months on end.

    Civil services have ground to a halt. Gas stations sit abandoned, leaving people to rely on fuel bought on the black market to run their cars and generators.

    “This city is supposed to be liberated,” this man shouts. “Three years, and nothing has changed. There is no government. We don’t get anything from them.”

    And in this Aden market, we meet fisherman Nabeel Ahmed, who has had this shop for 11 years.

  • Nabeel Ahmed (through translator):

    Without gas, none of us can go to the sea to fish. If I buy gas at these prices, I have to sell the fish at a high price. Sometimes, we have to close. We don’t work.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    More deadly than lack of fuel, lack of food. A Saudi blockade on Yemen’s Houthi-controlled north late last year dealt a heavy blow to a country which relies on imports for 90 percent of its food.

    Seventeen million Yemenis, over half the population, don’t have enough food to survive.

    So, here in Aden, it’s a big city. There is food available. The problem, the prices. We’re going to go talk to some shopkeepers now.

  • Bashir Salam (through translator):

    The previous price was 20. Now it’s 40.

    Bashir Salam says he had to double some of the prices in his shop.

  • Bashir Salam:

    We used to give normal people goods on credit. They would pay at the end of the month. Now we can’t. We tell them, you have to pay in cash, so I can have cash to keep things running.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Kifah Abdul Kafee says high prices make feeding her family a daily struggle.

    Who do you blame?

  • Kifah Abdul Kafee (through translator):

    The government. Who else would we blame? A very corrupt government. There are people who are dying of hunger inside of their houses. They don’t dare to go out. They don’t go out to ask for help, even for medicine. This is too much to handle.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Life here is a grind. Everywhere you go, you see destruction like this. There’s been virtually no rebuilding. Trash piles up in the street. There are open sewage lines. They may have driven the Houthis out of this part of the country, but the official Yemeni government is massively fractured. The result? A failed state.

    Ahmed bin Ahmed al-Maysari is Yemen’s interior minister, a cabinet member of embattled and exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

    What do you say to the people who are paying double what they used to pay for food, who don’t have fuel, who say that Yemen is a failed state?

  • Ahmed bin Ahmed al-Maysari (through translator):

    Yes, we are suffering, but it’s nothing to compare with what the situation was when Houthis were here. We are still in the negative. Soon, we will reach zero point and we will go to positive. They have to be patient if they want the truth.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    But patience is in short supply.

    In January of this year, a separatist group backed by the United Arab Emirates stormed the streets of Aden, claiming corruption in the cabinet and demanding that it disband. Three days of clashes left scores dead, including seven men assigned to protect Maysari. He says the attackers were puppets of the UAE, which controls the south as part of a Saudi-led coalition formed to fight the Houthis.

  • Ahmed bin Ahmed al-Maysari (through translator):

     We don’t regret that Emiratis are here. They helped us. But you can’t go to the port without permission from UAE. You can’t go to the airport without permission from UAE. You can’t enter Aden from without the permission of UAE.

    I — as the minister of interior, I don’t even have authority over the prisons. What is my value as the minister of interior? The coalition originally came to fight Houthis with us, so wherever there are Houthis, the Saudis and the UAE must be there. But once an area is liberated, the legitimate government should be allowed to rule it.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Do you feel occupied?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Am I not correct? It sounds like occupation to me.

  • Ahmed bin Ahmed al-Maysari (through translator):

    It’s undeclared. We have a lot of indicators on the ground that support what you just said, but we still think good of UAE. And the answer to your question will come in the next few months.

    It’s either that the coalition countries prove that they came to support the legitimate government, and they enable us to do our work, or they will prove the thing you just said, and I myself will go and say it in a press conference, but not now.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    But these women will say they feel occupied.

    How old is he? Sixty-five years old.

    Mohamed Saleh is one of hundreds believed to be held in secret prisons run by the UAE and its proxy forces. He was taken six months ago from his home by police allegedly on charges of terrorism, and disappeared without a trace.

    His sister Mariam comes every week to protest with other family members, desperate for information.

  • Mohamed Saleh (through translator):

    We are not even allowed to go to the coalition offices to ask about our family members. Did they come to help us get rid of Houthis or destroy us? This is a crime. We’re humans, not animals.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    We asked the representative of the newly reopened Ministry of Human Rights about the status of the detained.

  • Radfan Mufteihi (through translator):

    The courts have been closed for 2.5 years because of the war, and they just reopened six months ago. Now that they are open, things will get better. The coalition security used to say that they can’t release any suspects because, with no courts, there could not be a trial.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Did you hear anything back?

    The UAE officially denies their use of secret prisons. But the minister of interior tells us otherwise. He says he was in talks with the UAE on behalf of these families, but the attack on his government in January shut down communication.

    Hanan’s husband, Rami, has been detained for over a year-and-a-half.

  • Hanan Mohamed Ali Hasan (through translator):

    The Yemeni government has no control over Yemen. This is our country, but the coalition treat us like slaves in our country. They are occupying us. They have helped us once, and we thank them, but they need to leave.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Here in the south, the silence of stalemate is a far cry from the scream of airstrikes in the north. And life goes on amid the rubble of yesterday’s war, with little hope for tomorrow.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Marcia Biggs in Aden, Yemen.

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