Yemen: Cut off, hemmed in and slowly running out of food

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Saddam al Abdeeni

Most days I wake to the sound of machine guns, rockets and the drone of fighter planes. I sleep lightly, and in my dreams I am half aware of the sounds of war around me that grow louder as dawn approaches.

Unable to sleep, I rise early and set off for the office. This should be a simple journey but nothing is simple in Sa'ada any more.

It takes an hour to reach Islamic Relief's building and I am frequently stopped at security checkpoints. I am not always sure what armed group is in charge of the crossings, but the questions are always the same: what is your name? Where are you from? Where are you going?

I have been trapped in Sa'ada province since fighting between the government and the rebels began two months ago in northern Yemen.

We have very little contact with the outside world. Journalists are unable to enter the province and few aid organisations can operate here. Communication networks are usually down.

There are gun battles on the streets between armed groups, but there are few witnesses to this destruction. So far, 150,000 people have fled their homes. Every day mortar shells fall on the streets.

For those of us who have not left, life is difficult and painful, and no one knows when it will end.

When I arrive at work I am greeted by about 500 men, women and children waiting at the gates. Whatever time of the morning I arrive, there are always people waiting, hoping that we will be able to help them.

They have escaped their homes and have nothing. Some are old, disabled or ill. They have walked long distances to reach us and desperately need food, shelter, water and medicine.

I help to co-ordinate the distribution of aid to families who are trapped by the fighting. I organise our staff into teams who distribute the food rations from three centres.

The teams check the information on people's identification cards given to them by the World Food Programme and add any new recipients to our list, which is growing by the day.

One of the most serious problems is that food is in very short supply. We have distributed food parcels to more than 32,000 people in Sa'ada and the surrounding areas, but it is not enough.

More than a quarter of the children in Sa'ada are now acutely malnourished. Most people spend their days preoccupied with thoughts of where they will find their next meal.

A couple of weeks ago, a mother of three, Um Ibrahim, arrived at our office asking for help. Her husband was dead; she had no relatives to help her take care of the children.

She told me that armed men came into her home demanding food and threatening to kill her children if she did not comply. Every day she had to take food rations into the surrounding hills where they were hiding.

Her children were also forced to bring water to the armed men and told they would be imprisoned if they did not. Um Ibrahim managed to escape with her children.

Some of the luckier and wealthier people have gone to other neighbouring regions that are a little safer. But the majority of displaced people are still in Sa'ada.

All the schools are closed and displaced people have taken refuge in them. The poorest families have simply fled into the mountains where they are surviving in the wild with no tents, no mattresses and no food.

Across from our office, Al Salam school's 12 classrooms are all crammed with families, mainly women and children. There is no clean water or sanitation.

People are finding safety from the bombs wherever they can. Last week I went to a chicken farm, whose dilapidated buildings are home to 20 families.

The conditions were appalling and there were just some hastily strung up bits of cloth for privacy. The farm's inhabitants did not feel safe but they had no money to travel any further. Women and girls are too scared to go out.

The war has brought Sa'ada's economy to its knees. Farmers have stopped working on their land. Businesses and shops have shut down. The price of food, medicine and fuel have tripled.

With no way to earn an income, families are quickly running out of money and are turning to us.

But we are unable to get more staff into the region so our resources are stretched to the limit. I face a daily battle to ensure that we get our aid to the right place at the right time.

Moving around on the roads is dangerous because of constant threats of attack, which forces us to halt our work, sometimes for days at a time. I find these days very frustrating.

With so many people in desperate need we have to carefully control the distribution of food so as not to aggravate the situation by causing further tensions between families while also ensuring that the people who need our help receive it.

There are fierce battles in the old city and hundreds have been killed or injured.

But there are only two hospitals in the whole province - and one of these is in the old city, cut off because of the fighting. I can only imagine what the conditions are like for the doctors and their patients. The other hospital is facing a severe shortage of equipment and medicine.

We continue to hand out food until 3pm and I work in the office until 6pm. I would like to stay longer but have to hurry back home because of the curfew imposed across Sa'ada.

The isolation is one of the most difficult things to cope with. It is hard to reach colleagues, friends and relatives.

Islamic Relief has been assisting with setting up a camp for displaced people further south in Hajjah and I am glad that some people from Sa'ada will finally be able to get the help they need, although what they really want is peace.

When this conflict started on August 11, I did not think it would go on for so long and yet there is still no let-up in the fighting.

There is a sense of claustrophobia here. I often feel like we are all facing a slow death as the fighting continues, hemming us in on all sides.

I never thought I would be trapped in the place I call home, but all I can do is try in my own way to help those who have lost everything and pray that peace comes sooner rather than later.

Saddam al Abdeeni is a Yemeni aid worker with the British humanitarian aid agency Islamic Relief. Also featured on The National.