A journey through Yemen
No end in sight
Yemen Country Director Giorgio Trombatore recently completed his first year managing the International Medical Corps team in Yemen.
Based in Sana’a, he is responsible for a country team of more than 150 staff members and for programmes we operate in Aden, Taizz and Sana’a – funded by the European Union - that provide humanitarian assistance to those in need.
Below are his reflections of the challenges he has faced to direct International Medical efforts to support tens of thousands of civilians caught up in a civil war that seems to have no visible end in sight. You can read part 1 of Giorgio's blog here
For a country that carries the deep scars of years of vicious conflict, where events can develop by the minute, it is often easy to feel that nothing changes very fast. The celebration of Mouloud brings rare moments of joy, celebration and a vivid and vibrant green to the streets of Sana’a. Banners, flags and vehicles all are daubed in the intense colour, marking the birthday of the prophet Muhammad and providing a tangible milestone for the passing of time.
Against this backdrop of celebration, we nose our vehicle towards the first checkpoint on our journey south out of Sana’a on a road that will take us to Aden a routine journey in order to monitor the work of International Medical Corps teams across the region. The state of the country makes such trips both tense and dangerous but also laborious and riven by administrative hurdles – a bizarre combination, and one that make the travel so very slow.
This arduous pace is clear when we reach the main checkpoint of Yasleh in the Belad Al-Roos district, the queues swelled by visitors to the country’s capital. A soldier gives a blasé wave of his machine-gun as he tells us to wait for official wheels to turn.
“Go sit in the restaurant, we will call you when your pass is ready,” he says as he lights a cigarette with his free hand.
This is standard, and is going take time. I sit in a plastic chair and watch merry Yemenis arriving from all districts. Most are clearly from the villages and districts around Sana’a. Many wear military uniforms, almost all carry a Kalashnikov.
Ahead of us are the towns of Ibb, Taiz, Lahj and Aden, notorious because of the violence that has been taking place there. In December alone the latest attack in Aden saw a bomb kill 40 Yemeni soldiers in front of the Al-Sulban military base, while subsequent fighting would see the toll climb by the day.
A wave of my logistic coordinator shows we have the green light to proceed – a call from the depths of the country’s National Security apparatus convincing the security guard to open the door to Ibb to us.
The scenery is beautiful, and the chance to see it is among the best parts of my work. Mountains, rolling countryside and the unique old houses made in rough stone pass by – common in Yemen but rare anywhere else. It is a privilege to explore areas most will never see, what even TV pictures rarely capture. But we need to slow past craters created by bomb blasts, creep past rubbish bags left ignored for many months and the rubble of buildings smashed to atoms. The war here has stolen possessions, ruined basic infrastructure and taken lives in every area.
As the hours pass, many soldiers manning the regular checkpoints can barely speak, their mouths full of the locally grown amphetamine-like stimulant khat which causes one side of their cheeks to blow up like small balloons. All of them are skinny, many as young as 13, and all have the Arabic quotes denoting their role as ‘helpers of Allah’ on the butts of their assault rifles.
This travel is slow, and helps explain the problems our mobile medical teams face as they struggle to reach our health facilities that are under constant pressure. In Ibb, many of those people forced from their homes wait for the fighting to end, desperate for food, shelter and medical support. We hold for a night, preparing to leave again at first light. From there, we head toward Khatabah and the Al-Dhale district, passing increasing numbers of checkpoints – some small, some formal, some manned by soldiers wearing Cossack-style greatcoats – some just a few hundred metres from the last. We’re nearing the front line, and the nervous tension climbs.
The same gestures are repeated over and over, the same questions are asked and hours are lost waiting for phone calls to come from Sana’a, vouching for us and permitting us further passage. The final checkpoint of the North is much like all the rest, and suddenly new groups are manning the checkpoints in the South – little in the way of fuss, but bringing new questions.
“Any Russians or Chinese? Are any of you Russian or Chinese?” a soldier screams, before collapsing into hysterical laughter and receiving the applause of his colleagues. Having swapped cars to travel with our Yemen-South team, we drive off, leaving them behind in giggles.
It is afternoon when we reach Aden, and the amazing blue of the sea welcomes us to the city. It reminds me of the sea of green we left in Sana’a, and it is stunning in its beauty. We travel to a heavily guarded area on top of a hill known by the locals as ‘Al –Maasheq’, and there an amazing panorama unfolds, with striking uncontaminated beaches and a clear sky providing a feeling of peace and beauty which this devastated land finds so elusive.
We are there to sit with the Prime Minister of Yemen, Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, and the Governor of the local area.
We are there to present to the authorities the challenges of working as humanitarian workers in such contexts, the impact of the security situation on the teams who are dedicated to helping the most vulnerable and the need for support in letting us carry out the work our donors have charged us with completing.
It goes well, or so I think, and my team departs, hopeful that some impact has been made. As we return to our office in the city we pass contrasting visions, one of people shopping around the main road of Queen Arwa, families playing with their young children and old men playing chess on the streets – all amid the remains of buildings burned and dark, their contents looted and armed fighters idling in the shadows; alert, on edge and menacing.
It is this contrast that stands out the most.
Amid the beauty and business of lives being lived, at our hospitals and medical clinics our staff see young people queuing up for help with shocking war-related injuries. Some come to us almost completely burned from head to toe, while mothers bring young children who are severely malnourished and on the edge of death.
A dark past looms over a shaky present, where frontlines shift, loyalties change and alliances are made and broken – and in the middle, millions of people try to live their lives as best they can. There is no end in sight, and the fear is that even the most basic services supporting these people are finally set to collapse.
In such a fluid environment, speed is often the difference between life and death. It is speed which is being denied to humanitarian organisations such as International Medical Corps, a denial which makes a hard job all the harder for my teams of dedicated people. Each time I wait at a checkpoint I consider it part and parcel of life in this most chaotic and dangerous of places, each time I try to put from my mind the true cost of such waits – a cost that can be measured in terms of lives lost rather than minutes wasted.
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