Red Cross worker fears 'dire consequences' as aid groups pull out of Yemen amid threats

The Red Cross has pulled its foreign staff out of war-torn Yemen. Humanitarian worker Mirella Hodeib says aid groups are being forced to leave after increased threats against staff.

Mirella Hodeib says that aid workers pulling out of Yemen will have a 'catastrophic and tragic' impact

A Yemeni child looks out at buildings that were damaged in an air strike in the southern Yemeni city of Taez. Last week, the Red Cross announced they are pulling dozens of aid workers our of the war-torn country as threats and violence against their staff increases. (Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Red Cross has pulled more than 70 of its aid workers out of Yemen.

After more than three years of war, disease and famine, the people of Yemen are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. But last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced the country is simply too unsafe for the organization to continue its full operations.

On Monday, the United Nations followed suit, evacuating its staff from the Yemeni city of Al Hudaydah, which is a key port for imported aid and supplies.

Mirella Hodeib is a humanitarian worker for the Red Cross who was working Sana'a until just last week. As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Hodeib about the decision and what it means for the war-torn country. Here is part of their conversation.

Ms. Hodeib, why did the Red Cross decide it wasn't safe for its staff to be in Yemen?

While we've had numerous threats of similar nature in the past, they were often unsubstantiated. But regardless, now, of how small the threats seem to be, at this stage we do not have the luxury of taking any additional risks, especially after the shooting and killing of our colleague, Hanna Lahoud, in Taiz, on April 21. 

The coffin of Lebanese humanitarian worker Hanna Lahoud is carried by his fellow Red Cross workers. Hodeib says Lahoud's death sent a 'ripple effect' through aid organizations and was likely a factor in the decision for the Red Cross to pull out of Yemen. (Hassan Ammar/Associated Press)

And that was just an awful thing. He was in a car, unarmed, doing his work and shot dead in Yemen. What effect did that have on all of you who were working there?

It was devastating because the Red Cross is known to be very close to the community we work with, so the fact that a colleague of ours, who is just carrying out their normal work, is shot and killed — it's shocking. And it's had a ripple effect within Yemen. Because what Hanna was trying to do was help and his life ended. So this was shocking to everyone.

At the same time, you and others have just been putting up with such extreme difficulty trying to help people in Yemen. You're dealing with a war that no one seems to be willing to end. You're dealing with the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world right now. You have problems with cholera, disease, famine — everything. How difficult is it for you and your colleagues to be leaving?

It is very difficult. We know that the needs are massive in Yemen. It's a little bit ironic because instead of focusing our efforts to respond to the huge and growing humanitarian needs, we are focused on ensuring the safety of our own staff. So I mean, this, of course, reflects on the quality and the size of our response in Yemen. 

In addition to the Red Cross, the United Nations also said that they are going to pull staff out from the port of Al Hudaydah, which is a key place for getting aid supplies. (Abdo Hyder/AFP/Getty Images)

We should point out, this is a humanitarian crisis, completely man-made. This is not a natural disaster. This is a country that can feed itself, that can care for itself, being destroyed by war.

Yes. Since 2015, so many aspects of daily life and infrastructure in Yemen have been affected as a result of the war. It's true that humanitarian organizations can only help within a fraction but not be able to cover all the needs because the needs are immense. So the International Committee of the Red Cross, but also other organizations, are doing part of the work. But the rest of the work needs to be done by the Yemenis themselves.

Yemenis walk past rubble after deadly airstrikes near the presidential compound, in Sanaa, last month. (Hani Mohammed/Associated Press)

What we are seeing right now is the United Nations is saying that it is going to pull it staff out from the port of Al Hudaydah, which is a crucial place, isn't it? They are anticipating, they've been told to expect, a major attack on that port. What will happen if that actually comes to pass, if there is a military operation in Hudaydah?

Whenever fighting nears an urban centre we can expect that the repercussions on civilians, on civilian infrastructure, will be very bad. And as you just mentioned, Carol, Hudayah is where most of the imports into Yemen come in. So that will also have an effect on the humanitarian aid, the food, the fuel and other that come into Yemen, especially to the north.

So there are a lot of signs that make us worried. The International Committee of the Red Cross has actually urged all parties in the conflict to spare civilians, to spare civilian infrastructure, and to abide by international humanitarian law. So we see that there will be dire consequences to any fighting nearing this city that is densely populated.

What's going to happen in the days and weeks to come in Yemen, as so many aid workers pull out?

It is going to be even more catastrophic and tragic. It's a protracted conflict. It has drained the Yemenis and the Yemini infrastructure. Humanitarian workers and humanitarian organizations could only respond to one portion of the needs and it will have a very negative impact on the humanitarian situation there.

Written by Sarah Cooper and John McGill. Interview produced by Sarah Cooper. Q&A edited for length and clarity.​

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