Watch a Dispatch from Yemen's Humanitarian Crisis

Why is the international community ignoring the country's urgent needs for food, water and medical care?

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Watch a Dispatch from Yemen's Humanitarian Crisis
Credit: Video by Sebastiano Tomada

The war in Yemen — especially the Saudi-led coalition's aerial attacks on the capital and its blockade of the border — now in its fourth month, has created a countrywide humanitarian crisis. According to the UN, an estimated 21.1 million people, or 80% of the population, require humanitarian assistance, and at least 1 million have been internally displaced. Nearly half of Yemen’s administrative districts are rated as "emergency" for food access — one level short of famine. An epidemic of dengue fever has broken out in several cities. Yet the UN and other international agencies have largely evacuated their international staff.

The neglect of the international community is apparent once you leave the capital of Sanaa. Two hours north, in the Khamir district, we find a crude camp spread over a muddy field, currently housing over a thousand internally displaced persons, or IDPs. Emmanuel Berbain, a French physician with Medecins Sans Frontieres (aka Doctors Without Borders), has been attending to its inhabitants. "They basically have nothing," he says. "There is no food distribution in all of Khamir. You’d expect the UN agencies to get involved in a situation like this." Since the camp, known as the Khat Market, is located on private land, MSF has been unable to get permission to dig latrines. Berbain worries the unsanitary conditions could soon lead to epidemics.

Berbain crouches by a water tank set up in the field, where two small children are coaxing the last drops from a faucet. "It’s already empty," he says. "They’ll have no more water until tomorrow morning." MSF has a long-running project in Yemen supporting local health facilities. When the IDPs began showing up in Khamir a couple months ago, Berbain and his colleagues supplied water as an emergency measure. Oxfam recently took over, but outsourced delivery to a local partner, which is only able to fill the tanks half full. Berbain believes at least 1,200 people are now living in the Khat Market, while many more have found refuge in nearby schools and with relatives. "There aren’t any expats in the field here," Berbain says.

Two weeks ago, I spoke to a senior foreign official in Sanaa who told me the UN had around seven expat staff left in the country. The MSF team is urging the international community to get involved. "We need the UN agencies to come and do what they’re supposed to do," says Becky Oba, MSF’s project coordinator. "People have nothing to eat."

Matthieu Aikins and Sebastiano Tomada recently ran the blockade into Yemen, traveling from Djibouti by boat across the Gulf of Aden.