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6 July 2015updated 26 Aug 2015 4:55pm

In civil war Yemen, the first priority is simple: getting food

“Sometimes we can hide some boxes of tomatoes or potatoes and get them in,” one vegetable-seller-turned-food smuggler in Aden told me. “But trucks of food?"

By Iona Craig

Clasping a ration ticket, Adnan Bahakim, aged 13, pushes a trolley through a supermarket with the help of his 12-year-old cousin. A staff member guides them to the dark, empty corner that was once the vegetable section.

“I can’t remember when we last had vegetables,” the clerk says, as he reads the boys’ list, leading them to the bags of rice and sugar to which they are entitled. “But it was a long time ago.”

The Yemeni civil war has entered its fourth month. In the country’s second city, Aden, the residents are under siege by land, air and sea while battles rage in the streets. Adnan was displaced after artillery rounds hit his neighbourhood and water and power lines were cut. He lives among scores of other families, relying on food donations in a hotel just behind the front line established by the Southern Resistance, which is fighting to defend the city.

Yemen has faced many conflicts in its history. There have been several civil wars in the past 50 years. The country is often described using clichés such as “war-torn” or “on the brink”. In five years, I have covered six conflicts here. It appears as though Yemen has tumbled off the “brink” and plunged into the abyss. The current war is taking by far the heaviest toll not on its foreign backers in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but on millions of Yemeni civilians.

In peacetime, Yemen imports 90 per cent of its food. Now, families of more than ten in Aden claim free food rations (while they last) – and if they can get their hands on a “golden ticket”, which may be exchanged for enough rice, pasta, oil and sugar to last a few days. Commercial ships have stopped docking after a sea blockade imposed by a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia, the Sunni kingdom that also launched a bombing campaign in March and shut down Yemen’s airspace to commercial traffic.

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Fuel imports have been stopped, too, affecting more than just transport. In the nation’s capital, Sana’a, 60 per cent of the water supply had previously been trucked in and delivered to people’s homes. Before it can be transported, water needs to be pumped from the country’s depleted water table. Fuel shortages have resulted in both water scarcity and soaring delivery costs.

In practical terms, the naval blockade needs little enforcement in Aden. Shipping companies and their captains have to navigate their way between ports that are under the control of the opposing sides. Several aid boats have come under fire from Houthi Saleh forces, the coalition of predominantly Zaidi Shia fighters from northern Yemen and the remaining military units still loyal to the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. A United Nations aid shipment was forced to retreat to the Red Sea port of Hodeidah at the end of May; then, on 27 June, a vessel carrying aid from Qatar and Malaysia was prevented from docking after Houthis fired missiles at the Aden refinery port, the last access route into the city not under their control.

The Saudi-led siege is vastly exacerbated by land blockades enforced in areas of the worst fighting. In a brutal form of collective punishment, starvation is being used as a weapon. Trucks of flour from emergency supplies brought in sporadically by UN aid agencies to Hodeidah and the airport in Sana’a, both of which are under Houthi control, have been turned back at checkpoints while attempting to enter Taiz and Aden, contested areas where some of the heaviest fighting is raging.

Taiz is the driest city in Yemen. Water, which has tripled in price since the war began, has to be trucked in to the city daily in order for residents to survive.

“Sometimes we can hide some boxes of tomatoes or potatoes and get them in,” one vegetable-seller-turned-food smuggler in Aden told me. “But trucks of food? Anything in large quantities, or a sack of flour? It’s not possible. They send you back or they take it for themselves.”

Of a population of roughly 25 million, 80 per cent of Yemenis are now in need of humanitarian aid. More than 12 million do not know where their next meal is coming from, according to the latest UN figures. The number of acutely malnourished children – 850,000 – is expected to rise to 1.2 million in the next few weeks if the conflict continues on its present course.

The UN special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has warned of impending famine, and is urging both sides to agree to a ceasefire that would allow for aid deliveries. But a humanitarian pause without the lifting of blockades would provide little if any relief to the millions of Yemenis in desperate need.

Where the Saudi-led bombing campaign, supported by the UK and US, has failed to push back the Iranian-supported Houthis – who have extended their control since March – the siege is likely to put greater pressure on the Saudi coalition’s adversaries. Similarly, as the grip of the naval and aerial blockades tightens, the Houthis’ stranglehold on contested areas may grow stronger. The restrictions on food, fuel, water and drugs are being used as an effective form of retribution.

Conservative estimates put the death toll at more than 2,600 since the conflict began in March. That figure will continue to rise. Another certainty is that as long as food continues to be used as a tool in this war, malnutrition – along with treatable diseases, as shortages afflict the health-care system – will kill many more than bullets and bombs. 

This article appears in the 01 Jul 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe