As It Happens

Aid worker on suffering in Yemen: 'There's things that you just can't even fathom'

Saudi Arabia has vowed reopen the main airports and seaports into Yemen after closing them a week ago. But aid groups say one week without food and fuel was too much.
A Yemeni child receives treatment at a hospital in the Yemeni coastal city of Hodeidah. (Abdo Hyder/AFP/Getty Images)

Story transcript

It was hard to imagine how life in Yemen could get harder. But the men who have turned the country into a battlefield have, once again, found a way.

Thousands of people have died over years of fighting. A cholera epidemic is getting worse by the day and millions face the prospect of famine.

Last week, Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen closed the country's ports to outside aid. They were responding to a missile attack on Riyadh. The Saudis blamed Iran, which backs the Houthi and Hezbollah fighters on the other side.

Today, the Saudis promised to begin re-opening ports. But a Houthi rebel leader warned that the doors to peace might have already closed.

Shane Stevenson is Oxfam's country director in Yemen. He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the current state of the country.

Saudi Arabia told the United Nations today that it was "taking all possible measures" to alleviate the suffering of people in Yemen. What have those measures, those claims, looked like on the ground?

As far as we're aware, Saudi Arabia opened the ports of Aden and it's now receiving bulk cargo into there and also Mocha and Mukalla ports along the south side. Unfortunately, the airports in Sanaa and Aden aren't open at the moment, which is quite disappointing. And the main port of Hodeida, where the rice and wheat and the sugar and the commodities come into Yemen, is still closed.

"If we can't get fuel into the country, there's no point getting food into the country because we won't be able to push the food around," Stevenson says. (Adbo Hyder/AFP/Getty Images)

What are you up against in trying to help people as an aid agency?

Oh, it's unfathomable. It really is hard to describe. It just comes from every direction. Every week, we're out here trying to support the people of Yemen. We come across more and more difficulties, more and more impediments. But we keep trying. At the moment, the biggest issue that we have is that the fuel has stopped coming into the country.

If this is not resolved very quickly, then it's going to deteriorate into something I can't even imagine.- Shane Stevenson, Oxfam

And the worst thing is that a lot of the water is pumped from boreholes and they need diesel to fuel the generators.

And if you haven't got clean water, then that leads to a breeding environment for disease like cholera and there's also some reported cases of diphtheria.

But imagine going to a hospital and then there not being any diesel fuel for the generators. It's just every way you look, there's things that you just can't even fathom — I come from the U.K. — in everyday life. And they've got challenges, after challenge after challenge.

Stevenson says that the people of Yemen are not fleeing the country, but seeking shelter under pieces of plastic in the desert. (Abdo Hyder/AFP/Getty Images)

And how much worse was it after this latest blockade that has now been partially lifted?

There was the intensification of airstrikes in some of the areas in the north of Yemen, so we had to restrict where we could do things.

And even if the port of Aden does open tomorrow, the impact of one week of not having supplies coming into the country is going to be felt for the next few months.

People look at the damage in the aftermath of an air strike in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa on November 11, 2017. (AFP/Getty Images)

 What are you and your colleagues worried will happen if you can't at least get this fuel soon? 

I think if we can't get fuel into the country, there's no point getting food into the country because we won't be able to push the food around. We won't be able to put fuel in the generators to set up the lights in the hospitals. We won't be able to pump the clean water and truck it around in backs of lorries around the country. If this is not resolved very quickly, then it's going to deteriorate into something I can't even imagine.

And is it your sense that the reason why the fuel is unlikely to get in is because Saudi Arabia is concerned that fuel with end up in the hands of Houthi rebels?

Of course they'll be concerned. They'll be concerned about what it's used for and how it will be used. And what we've always been calling for is for the parties to the conflict to sit down and work out their differences.

If the people who have stewardship over the conflict here can't sit around the table and work out a roadmap for de-escalating the conflict, then I don't know what will come next.   

Shane Stevenson is Oxfam's country director in Yemen. (Shane Stevenson )

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview Shane Stevenson. 


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