HODEIDA – With their eyes bulging, stomachs swollen and bones visible, children in the rebel-held fishing village of Al-Khukha are facing starvation as Yemen’s conflict shows no signs of ending.
Even before the outbreak of violence in 2011, malnutrition was a chronic problem in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country.
The situation is so bad in Al-Khukha, near Hodeida on the Red Sea coast, that some doctors estimate as many as half of the village’s children are at risk of dying.
“We have nothing to eat,” Hayat Ahmed says over the cries of her famished son lying nearby on a makeshift rope bed.
She says men from the village used to go fishing in the waters between Yemen’s Red Sea coast and the Horn of Africa.
“But they no longer go into the sea because of the war and air strikes,” Ahmed adds. “We are poor and have nothing left.”
Aisha Ali, the grandmother of a similarly malnourished boy, laments her family’s plight.
“Although he is calm now, he never stopped crying all night. He suffers severe malnutrition and we don’t have the means to save his life,” she says.
The conflict between Yemen’s government and Iran-backed Huthi rebels escalated last year with the intervention of a Saudi-led Arab coalition in support of the president.
Al-Khukha is part of the territory controlled by the Shiite insurgents, who overran the capital Sanaa in September 2014 and went on to seize other provinces.
The coalition that supports President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi has been trying to push them back.
It has imposed a sea blockade on Yemen and conducts daily air strikes on areas under the rebels’ control.
– Children paying ‘great price’ –
The violence and associated rising cost of fuel has hit fishing hard.
“Malnutrition among the children is a chronic problem in Yemen,” says Mohammed al-Assadi, the Sanaa representative of the UN children’s agency, UNICEF.
He says the conflict reversed several years of improvement in the west coast provinces of Hodeida, Hajja and Taez where 31 percent of children are now suffering severe malnutrition.
Authorities say the situation is even worse in Al-Khukha, a village with a population of 5,000.
“Around 50 percent of the village’s children suffer from severe malnutrition,” says Fuad al-Nahari, the director of an Al-Khukha health centre.
Abdullah Joblan, an official in the village, says several children have died of malnutrition.
“Some of the world organisations used to work with us two years ago. They have resumed through governmental organisations but not like they used to” before the conflict, he says.
According to UNICEF, “children are paying a great price of the current conflict” across the country.
Nearly three million people are in need of immediate food supplies, while 1.5 million children suffer malnutrition, including 370,000 enduring very severe malnutrition that weakens their immune system, it says.
Assadi says child malnutrition is a direct result of the shortage of supplies and drinking water, as well as the collapse of the health system.
A lack of jobs and sufficient income has also contributed to the problem.
Making matters worse, boats have been destroyed and fishermen are unable to sell their catch due to insecurity.
“Whenever we hear the noise of a jet, we run to hide, leaving all our fish and property behind,” says fisherman Ahmed Omar.
“It’s a miserable life,” he laments.
“We used to go farther into the sea for fishing. But now we are afraid to go far because of air strikes,” says another fisherman, Suliman Zokhiam, standing in front of several boats stranded ashore.
“We cannot make ends meet with what we get out of the sea these days.”