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Yemen was poor before, but ‘the war just finished us’

It's being called the forgotten war. With access for journalists limited and dangerous, Yemen, home to the world's worst humanitarian crisis, goes largely ignored. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs was able to enter the country to learn how its people are struggling, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The impoverished nation of Yemen stands on the brink of collapse, with the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

    Three-quarters of its 29 million people need humanitarian assistance. There are one million suspected cases of cholera. And 10,000 people have died in a brutal three-year-old civil war causing all the misery.

    On one side of the war, Shiite Houthi rebels, a religious minority in Yemen, backed by Iran, who now control the capital, Sanaa, and the second largest port city, Hudaydah.

    On the other side, the government forces of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which includes the United Arab Emirates and the United States. A Saudi-led air campaign has pounded Houthi strongholds in the north, and cut off aid and food, driving many people south, homeless in their own land.

    Tonight, with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    It's being called the forgotten war. In Yemen, a country where access for journalists is limited and dangerous, the world's worst humanitarian crisis goes largely ignored.

    But after months of waiting, we were able to get permission to enter the country through the southern city of Aden, the new de facto capital of Yemen's government, controlled by the Saudi-led coalition.

    We were hoping to get to areas under siege, but kept hitting a wall.

    So, it's incredibly difficult to access the northern Houthi-controlled areas to cover what's going on there. Even if you can secure permission from the Houthis, it's getting there that's the problem. The airport in Sanaa is shut. There is one flight from Djibouti for humanitarian staff, but the Saudis control who gets on that flight, and right now they're not giving permission to journalists.

    You could drive, but it's very dangerous and there's no guarantee that you will actually reach the destination, that you won't get turned around halfway there.

    So we went to a village called Basateen on the outskirts of Aden, to try to tell the story as best we could.

    So, since we can't get to the north to the Houthi-controlled areas, we're going to talk to some people that have recently arrived to find out what life is like there.

    Living in this one room are Souad, her two sons, and daughter-in-law. Souad says she fled daily airstrikes near her home in Hudaydah one month ago, but the lack of food was worse than the bombs.

  • Souad (through translator):

    Life is difficult there. People are hungry. They are looking for water, looking for food, looking for work, but there is nothing. We would eat once a day. If we had breakfast, that's it for the day. If we had lunch, that's it for the day.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Lots of diseases have spread there. Children are getting malaria. Their platelets are low. They are very sick because of lack of food.

    Areas here in the south are — quote — "liberated" from Houthis and far from the front line. So, people may be safe from the fighting, but they still face the daily threat of starvation.

    Here in Aden, it's a big city. Food is available. The problem? The prices. We spoke to one shopkeeper who told me that a bag of flour three months ago cost $10. Now it costs 17.

    But Souad is living outside of Aden, where food and money are even harder to come by. She says her son makes around $3 a day as a laborer, but work is sporadic. When they have money, food is the first thing they try to find.

    So there are some vegetables. No meat. No bread. Just the vegetables. Who do you blame?

  • Souad (through translator):

    God help us with this situation. We don't know who caused it or who to blame. They are both fighting. I don't know.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Yemen was already the poorest country in the Middle East before the war. But, in 2015, Houthi rebels, supported by Iran, captured huge areas of the country, and the existing government made a deal with Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthis, driving them back north, where Saudi Arabia and a coalition which includes the United States has pounded the Houthis with bombs and tried to choke their supplies with a blockade.

    Amid international outrage, some U.S. lawmakers have sought to stop the flow of money and weapons to Saudi Arabia. But the Trump administration recently approved a deal to sell the Saudis $1.3 billion worth of weapons.

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

    How does it make you feel that Yemeni people in the north are being bombed and are starving in the name of fighting the Houthis?

    Ahmed bin Ahmed al-Maysari (through translator): Is there a war in the world were people don't die? War is a disaster on all levels. We didn't start this war. We were dragged into it.

    They came, supported by Iran, to take over our identity and doctrine that we had for 1,400 years. When war is imposed on you, you have to fight back.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    But the cost of that fight is high.

  • Shabia Mantoo:

    So, people try to set up home as best as they can in the circumstance. You can see clothes hanging on the line. People are using these plastic sheets to — for a sense of privacy.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Shabia Mantoo is with the United Nations Refugee Agency.

  • Shabia Mantoo:

    In the past three months alone, we have seen more than a 100,000 people have to flee their homes.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    This former vocational center outside of Aden is now home for displaced Yemenis, and 33 families are crammed in this building, having just arrived from the front line.

  • Woman (through translator):

    Missiles hit our house, and it was totally destroyed. The bathroom was the only place left standing.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Seventeen-year-old Roseila fled with her elderly aunt, with only the clothes on their backs. They had to leave her mother and father behind.

  • Roseila (through translator):

    I'm very worried about them and I call them when I can. If we find something, at least if we find mattresses, we will stay.

  • Shabia Mantoo:

    You're not just dealing with the displacement. We're also dealing with an active conflict zone. It makes getting assistance to them quite challenging.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    You're struggling to keep up?

  • Shabia Mantoo:

    Yes, definitely. I mean, if you look at the numbers, 22 million people in need, and humanitarian assistance is only finite. It requires more than a humanitarian solution. It's caused by a political problem, and the solution to that is peace.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Twenty-seven-year-old Elsam is the wife of a fisherman from Yemen's western coast.

  • Elsam (through translator):

    We ate once a day. We were under siege. We could not get anything. All we had was what we could catch in the sea.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    But they are now living 20 miles inland, so supporting the family is difficult, especially with a daughter coping with epilepsy.

  • Elsam (through translator):

    We have to drive two hours to bring her seizure medicine. It's not available around here. We try our best to provide the medicine for her every 10 days, but it's very expensive.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    For those most vulnerable, it's hardship after hardship. Yemen has historically imported 90 percent of its food. So restrictions on imports are a huge blow.

    Fuel shortages, inflation, and rising unemployment are crippling the country.

  • Shabia Mantoo:

    So, we're dealing with a situation in Yemen where you have got state services that are now on the brink of collapse. The health system is really buckling. Families are struggling to make the choice of deciding which child to feed, which child to send to hospital.

    I mean, these are really heartbreaking decisions, but this is what life is like for civilians now impacted by war in Yemen.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Here in this small regional hospital in Lahij province, just north of Aden, Dr. Marwa Gamal says she sees around a dozen children per month with severe acute malnutrition, all of them with complications; 10-month-old Mohamed was already malnourished when he contracted measles and bronchopneumonia.

    His mother said, when she brought him in, she thought he was dying.

    "His eyes were closed, and he wasn't breathing," she says.

    Is the biggest problem malnutrition or disease?

  • Dr. Marwa Gamal (through translator):

    Disease. Malnutrition is controllable if there are no complications. But when they come with diseases, this is much worse. There are cases that died. We could not help them because they come too late. They die because of complications.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Like many public sector employees, Dr. Gamal continues to work, despite an intermittent salary.

  • Dr. Marwa Gamal (through translator):

    I love my work. This hospital is in my village. If I don't help my own people, who am I going to help?

  • Marcia Biggs:

    Are you concerned about what will happen when they leave?

  • Dr. Marwa Gamal:

    Yes, yes, of course.

  • (through translator):

    I'm worried that the children will get worse or get sick again if the parents don't follow the proper course of treatment.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    A cycle of displacement, malnutrition and disease brought on not by famine or natural disaster, but by man.

    Is there a point when you would say, enough, Yemeni people are suffering, we have to find another way?

    Ahmed bin Ahmed al-Maysari (through translator): War will not end until its mission ends. And in the past three years, we have paid a lot. There is still little bit left to pay, and we have to pay it, so that the bill is completed and the mission is done.

    The blood we lost can't go for nothing. To let this blood go in vain and surrender means we have neither achieved the mission nor saved lives. They should have not started it. But now we're on this journey, and we have to finish it.

  • Marcia Biggs:

    "We were poor before the war," one woman told me, "but the war just finished us."

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Marcia Biggs in Aden and Lahij, Yemen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Marcia Biggs will be back tomorrow with the next part of her series, Inside Yemen.

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