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Near-Famine, Civil Conflict And COVID Leave Yemen In Devastating Humanitarian Crisis

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's a story we've told and we've heard repeatedly over nearly seven years. There's a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. It persists, and it's deepening. Right now 5 million people are on the brink of starvation as war continues to ravage the poorest country in the Middle East. The Saudi-led war with the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen has led to widespread food scarcity, all made even worse by the global pandemic.

David Gressly is the United Nations resident coordinator in Yemen. He started the job in March. And since then, he's traveled extensively through the country. We spoke earlier this week when he was in Washington, D.C., for meetings, and I started by asking him to describe what he's been seeing during his visits to Yemen.

DAVID GRESSLY: It's really devastating. You see the consequences of the war. The economy has collapsed. People don't have work. They don't have jobs. They can't afford food. And this is what's really driving this crisis. What you see are bombed-out schools, towns that aren't habitable because they're full of land mines or UXO, unexploded ordnance. You see factories no longer functioning, see power plants no longer functioning. You see people unable to carry out their day-to-day lives, whether it's farming or fishing. It's devastating not only from a lack of food or difficulty accessing food, but just from a personal dignity point of view. It's just really, really difficult for the people. And they're crying out for help, literally, everywhere I travel.

FADEL: Is there any one particular conversation or moment that you might share with us as a sort of symbol of what it is for the larger population?

GRESSLY: Well, I did a recent trip on the west coast, on the Red Sea coast, traveling up from the south to the front lines near the port of Hudaydah. And what struck me - every place I stopped, it was really hard to leave. I was grabbed by people who just wanted to tell their story, mainly mothers about their children not going to school, not knowing where to get food, not being able to get back to their home or their farms because of landmines. So it's very real. Access to water across front lines is difficult. They have access to saltwater from the - you know, from the sea but not freshwater. So everything needs to be done. It's really, really quite catastrophic for these families.

FADEL: So what needs to happen right now to bring any type of alleviation to this crisis?

GRESSLY: Well, I think three things. Number one - the humanitarian assistance that's ongoing needs to be sustained because if that doesn't continue, those that we've prevented going into famine will continue to do so in the months to come. So that has to be sustained - number one. Number two - there are a lot of factors on the economy because of the war that hold it down - the lack of access to all the ports, to the airport. The problems of moving goods around, all of the taxation, extraction of revenues and so forth drive up the cost of food. And the fact that businesses have collapsed means there's no income. So we need to find an economic solution to unlock the economy as much as possible. And, of course, the third thing is a political solution, ultimately, is what's required to stop this.

FADEL: Right. I mean, I guess the question is can any of what you described happened without the cessation of violence?

GRESSLY: Well, actual humanitarian assistance - all that requires is will to continue to deliver that. The economic pieces that I've described - that can be done, even in the context of a conflict. And, of course, the pursuit of peace has to continue. But the economy requires political will, not just the funding will required for humanitarian assistance. But I do believe we can improve the well-being of the average Yemeni citizen if we find that will.

FADEL: Yeah. Now, as I mentioned, Yemen is the poorest country in the region, and a Saudi-led war that up until recently had U.S. support has left tens of thousands of people dead. And you're speaking to us from D.C. What do you want to see from the U.S. when it comes to engagement in Yemen?

GRESSLY: I do believe there is a strong interest within the U.S. government to support continued humanitarian assistance. I was happy to see additional pledges come in in the side events at the General Assembly last week, political support for what I've mentioned on the economy and continued political support for inclusive peace discussions that can lead to a sustainable peace. It's a big agenda, but piece by piece without American leadership, I think it would be much more difficult.

FADEL: And we should note this is a policy shift under this administration. The last two administrations had been supportive of the Saudi-led war.

GRESSLY: I think it's very important what we've seen in terms of initiative. And we look forward to working together with the U.S. envoy and others who are helping to pursue this search for peace in Yemen.

FADEL: I have to also ask you about the coronavirus, which is complicating everything even further. How bad is the situation in Yemen? And what does the country need?

GRESSLY: The situation is quite serious. We see the third wave coming through. Of course, the statistics and monitoring of this are inadequate, so we don't have full information that we need. So the official data vastly understates what we think exists throughout the country. But it's serious, and it complicates already a very poor health system that's overwhelmed easily by other diseases. What we're facing in particular is a shortage of vaccines. We hardly have enough to vaccinate 1%, 2% of the population at this point in time. So we have need for more vaccines, but we have to continue to work to mitigate the impact of those who become infected with the virus and make sure that appropriate means are there at the hospitals at all levels to support those patients who become severely ill, putting a greater strain on already very, very strained hospital facilities. And I would say on the side, on the hospitals, there are no health clinics - very few health clinics functioning outside of provincial or government head capitals. People stream in from all directions, traveling for hours, if not days, to find health care. So you can imagine somebody coming - a woman coming in wanting to give birth, traveling - having had to travel two or three days, others who have been wounded seeking medical attention. And then you have COVID on top of that. It makes for an extraordinarily difficult situation for the medical personnel, both doctors and nurses, on the ground. I've been to so many hospital wards, and I've seen this directly.

FADEL: What are the consequences of delayed support and continued conflict?

GRESSLY: Well, each year that goes by increases the risk that Yemen will become a different country at the end of this conflict. You lose a generation of children year by year. Violence has a very devastating impact on the psychology of a country. A war that's gone on seven years is already too long. But I've worked in too many countries where conflict has gone 20, 25 years, and that transforms a country fundamentally. And recovery from that can take many, many years, if not decades. That's the path Yemen is on if it doesn't get turned around. If we don't act now, a fundamentally transformed country will exist at the end of this conflict.

FADEL: That was David Gressly, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen.

Thank you so much for being on the program.

GRESSLY: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIEN MARCHAL'S "INSIGHT I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 2, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous summary of this report misspelled David Gressly's last name as Gressley.
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