How Bad Are Things In Yemen? We Asked An Aid Worker Holed Up In A Basement

Dec 5, 2017
Originally published on December 6, 2017 12:10 pm

For the past couple of days, Johan Mooij has been holed up in his basement.

He's the country director for CARE in Yemen, and recent airstrikes sent him underground for safety.

Despite the destruction, disease and starvation he has witnessed in his two months in Sanaa, he has also seen countless examples of hospitality, concern and care among the Yemeni people — as well as signs of progress in controlling cholera.

"I think this is why this country has been able to keep up for so long," he says.

NPR spoke to Mooij by phone on Tuesday, after he was able to leave his basement.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

How dire is the situation in Yemen?

I've worked in areas where 1,000 or 10,000 people need to be fed. But never in a situation where millions depend on food aid.

Millions?

Up to about two or three months ago, 7 million people were depending on food aid. That means they need to get food [distributions] every month or they will die.

The U.N. is now forecasting that at the beginning of next year, 10 million people will be in severe need of food.

A Saudi-led blockade cut off Yemen's citizens from food, but it was eased in late November. Has that helped?

The harbors were opened again for humanitarian supplies but not commercial food supplies. The humanitarian supplies cannot compensate for the commercial supplies. It means more and more people will not be able to get food because there's not enough food coming into the country. We have been saying for the past five weeks, the blockade needs to be totally lifted or we will be close to a disaster.

What would happen?

There are no words to describe what will happen if 10 million people will not be able to get food.

How are people coping?

The Yemeni in general are very hospitable. They will share as long as they have something they can share. But the supplies are running out.

What's the solution?

The international community cannot continue to provide so many people with food and other items. We're advocating for parties to find a way to come together with an understanding. Or at least have a cease-fire so we have time to find solutions.

The world's worst cholera outbreak is now in Yemen and could reach 1 million people this year. How are people getting the medical care they need?

Cholera is not a complicated disease. It comes through contaminated water. If you catch it in time, you can treat it quite easily with an IV drip [to replenish lost fluids].

There are specialized clinics throughout the country. Doctors Without Borders and government clinics have been active in running them. Up to 800,000 people now have had some form of cholera. But only a few thousand people have died because of the effectiveness of treatment. Recently about a month ago, the clinics were downscaling because they saw less patients.

So basically dealing with cholera, we are doing quite well. But there's one major condition: You need clean water. If there's no fuel coming into the country to make the water pumps work, then people will have to go back to filthy water again. That will make cholera increase again.

How are aid groups assisting with injuries from the airstrikes?

I can speak for the couple of hospitals in Sanaa. The World Health Organization is providing some support and equipment. In general, there is enough capacity to deal with the injuries. Considering all the fighting that took place, we're talking about hundreds of wounded, not thousands. As terrible as it is, the hospitals can deal with the trauma.

That seems hard to believe in a war with so much physical violence.

It's hard to get a total picture of how many injuries there are. In a meeting, I heard that maybe 250 were injured. In a news report, I saw it was saying up to 400. It's not quite clear how many people died. Some were brought to the hospital, but most people were buried without being reported.

Are there enough medical workers?

One major issue is that salaries have not been paid for over a year at the hospitals. So medical staff often work without payment, and it's incredible that they are willing to work.

What's happening on the ground that's surprising to you?

When the former president died yesterday, we were in our basements but we heard the shooting and violence slowing down. Today was quiet. There was no more shooting. It was almost a normal day. People say this cannot last; something will happen. But nobody knows.

CARE is one of many aid groups on the ground. What are you now working on?

We are providing food distribution and water and sanitation projects for 1.8 million people in the cities of Sanaa, Hajjah, Taiz and Aden. CARE is also handing out cash vouchers to families so they can purchase food at the local market.

Is it too dangerous to go out on the streets?

If it's impossible to work, we'll ask our staff to stay at home and protect themselves. In those areas where there's fighting or the risks are too high, we will hibernate, as we call it. But we'll scale up where we can. It's the willingness of our staff in dangerous situations to do what they want to do most: help people in need.

Are there any people who you've met who are making a difference who give you hope?

We have been hiding in our basement for the last couple of days. One of our staff members came to our door and said, "My wife cooked you a meal." And I said, "But you have to look after your family. Don't."

But he said, this is what we do, this is our hospitality, this is who we are. It's a confirmation that the Yemeni have a true spirit of sharing. In his thinking, he needed to look after me. Which I appreciated very much.

How have you been doing work from your basement over the past couple of days?

Don't worry, my basement has carpet and some couches and a place to sleep. We even have Internet in the basement so we can do a bit of work. But today, [because of a cease in the fighting] it was great to be out for a couple of hours. But certainly tonight I will be standing in the basement again.

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