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Yemen’s Al-Hudaydah: A child’s worst nightmare

October 22, 2016 at 4:00 pm

SANAA, YEMEN – OCTOBER 15 : Yemeni people attend a celebration held for the 53rd Anniversary of Yemen independence from the British occupation at Tahrir square in Sanaa, Yemen on October 15, 2016. ( Mohammed Hamoud – Anadolu Agency )

The Yemeni coastal province of Al-Hudaydah is well known for its rich history and famous port that has seen many wars throughout its lifetime. It is unique in the sense that, compared to other Yemeni cities like Sana’a, during the latter half of the 20th century Al-Hudaydah wasn’t known for its ancient architecture. The port city of Al-Hudaydah was famous for its restaurants that specialised in making exquisite fish dishes. It was known for its breath-taking views of the Red Sea and its port that exported Yemeni culture to the rest of the world.

Al Hudaydah city’s infrastructure is relatively unique to the rest of Yemen, as it does not display much of Yemen’s ancient history. After a fire in 1961 damaged most of the city, it was rebuilt by the Soviet Union, who further discarded its cultural monuments given the fact that Soviet rebuilding efforts were minimal and did not consider Yemeni architectural history to be so important.

Its port, which before the current war was the second largest port in Yemen after Bab Al-Mandab in Aden, was developed by the Ottomans in the mid-19th century. Though its location was deemed to be strategic, at that time the port was relatively small and had limited capabilities. Later on, during the First World War, it was used by German forces to relay radio communications between Istanbul and parts of East Africa that Germany had colonised. It was also used to broadcast pro-German propaganda to East African colonies. French and British colonial forces also found uses for the port and the Italians imposed a naval blockade against it during the Italo-Turkish war in the early 1900’s.

Al-Hudaydah’s war legacy continues today. Because of the current war, it is now suffering one of the most severe humanitarian crises in Yemen. By the second week of October 2014, a month after the Houthi coup of 21 September, Houthis had advanced to taking over all of the entry points to Al-Hudaydah and even managed to capture the airport. The Houthis were met with very little resistance. This was of significant concern to the Saudis especially due to Al-Hudaydah’s strategic location.

The fact that it is situated on the Red Sea, adjacent to Eritrea, gives the port very high geostrategic value. Its waterway also leads directly northwards towards the Saudi border, which is just over 200km away. It is often forgotten that Saudi Arabia’s Farasan Marine Sanctuary Island is just 300km from the Al-Hudaydah port. Having a direct Houthi presence in Al-Hudaydah – especially when at that time the port was the second largest port in Yemen – was a great cause of concern for the Saudis.

The fact that Iranian vessels have been caught at the port with weapons that were suspected for the Houthis in the past fed on Saudi’s reservations about the Houthi takeover of Al-Hudaydah. Therefore, when the Saudi-led coalition began their intervention in March 2015, Al-Hudaydah became subject to immense airstrikes that have completely shattered its civilian infrastructure. By August 2015, the Al-Hudaydah port was severely damaged and by October 2015, the port was officially closed.

According to UNICEF, almost 100,000 children are starving in Al-Hudaydah right now, compared to 23,000 children before the war began in March last year. On average, fishing has decreased in Al-Hudaydah by 75 per cent since the start of the war and food prices in Yemen have seen a median increase of 60 per cent, meaning it is just as hard to acquire food with subsistence means as it is to buy food.

The overall number of children starving in Yemen is estimated to be 370,000, meaning just under a third of the children that are starving in Yemen are living in Al-Hudaydah. Photos of malnourished children have been circulating all over social media over the past few weeks. The photo of one child in particular, five-year-old Salim Ali Al Salim, grabbed the attention of people worldwide.

Salim Ali Al Salim (Photo: UNICEF)

Salim Ali Al Salim (Photo: UNICEF)

His eyes look helplessly towards the camera that captured his skeletal body for the world to see. Though he was later admitted to hospital and is now in recovery, it must not be forgotten that there are nearly 100,000 children as severely malnourished as Salim was.

Over the summer, hospitals in Al-Hudaydah reported a spike in the number of deaths from heat related illnesses due to a heatwave in June. Because at the time there was no electricity for air conditioning and for fridges, those who were able to afford food weren’t able to store it. If it wasn’t starvation that killed someone, it was the heat.

“These children are [ten times more likely] to die…compared to their healthy peers if not treated [in] time,” Mohammed Al-Asaadi, a Yemeni journalist who is working as a communication and media specialist for UNICEF, told me. “We [UNICEF] have expanded our operations in Al-Hudaydah to cover all the 399 health facilities in all of Al-Hudaydah’s districts. We have also deployed mobile teams to provide basic health and nutrition services to children and mothers,” he explains.

Despite efforts made by the international community, the crisis still persists and children in Al-Hudaydah, along with many other parts of Yemen, are punished in the name of the very politics that claims to emancipate them. Though relief projects and activism can alleviate suffering, it must not be forgotten that there are only two things that can permanently end the suffering of these children: justice and peace.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.