Hunger grips Yemen’s children

Jane Ferguson is an Al Jazeera journalist.

The whole team was shocked. We knew we were looking for evidence of child hunger, but we never expected skeletal babies – close to death.

Yemen has had massive food security problems for years.

The list goes on forever: lack of water, productive land used to grow Qat – the narcotic plant people here chew daily – instead of food, economic dysfunction, and a population explosion. They were always leading to disaster.

Violence and chaos across Yemen since the country’s revolution started last January, has been the last straw for the Arab world’s poorest country. Such chaos reaches into the lives, and pockets, of poor, rural villagers.

Electricity has been cut, roads closed, and as a result, employment levels have plummeted.

Dr Hanaa Aladini works at the Sebeen Hospital in Sana’a, and was keen to show us the children she is treating.

She sees a constant trickle of such families come to her with the same tale: work has dried up for the father, and the hunger was too much for the youngest to bear.

Her voice cracks when she speaks of the circumstances of the children, as emotion overcomes the privacy of the full face veil she wears.

‘The tiny bodies are still breathing’

The ward is almost silent. In a city where locals are notoriously noisy and charismatic, people whisper between these white walls. It feels like a morgue. But the tiny bodies are still breathing.

Faris lies in his mother’s arms, and he never takes his eyes off the camera. His enormous eyes are popping out of what seems like an enormous head, perched on a tiny skeleton.

He is full of lethargy. When food is given, it come straight back up again – his body can’t cope with it any more. I have seen this kind of lethargy before in Somalia last year during the famine, when children and babies don’t even cry any more. But never in the Middle East.

Asalah, in the next room, does cry. Frighteningly tiny, her mother tells us she is six months old. She looks like she’s in terrible pain.

There are a handful of other infants in the ward, but not many. They are those who can just about afford the journey to Sana’a and the small fees at this hospital. This is the tip of the iceberg, says Dr Aladini.

The situation in the villages is dire, her patients tell her.

The statistics for malnutrition and hunger in Yemen are terrifying. Almost a quarter of the Yemeni population needs urgent food assistance right now, according to the World Food Program.

Sebeen Hospital’s ward for malnourished children sits in the shadows of the city’s famous Al Saleh Mosque.

It cost $60 million to build.

The country’s poorest families can only hope that the economic policies of the new government might consider more carefully their needs.

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