A day in the life of an aid worker under the blockade in Yemen

What is it like for humanitarian organisations such as CARE on the ground in the war-ravaged country?

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On Thursday, Saudi forces opened the port and airport in Yemen's capital Sana'a to humanitarian aid – though 24 hours later, none has arrived. CARE International and other organisations argue the move will not be enough to alleviate the difficulties the blockade has already caused, which is described in the account below from the NGO's Yemen country director. 

7:00 AM: I wake up and hear the generator coming on, which means that I can have a hot shower! There is little water but I don’t complain. I heard that the price of water has doubled in recent months. Most people in the capital, Sana’a, do not even have water, forcing several clinics to shut down.

7:30 AM: I spend a bit of time on my rooftop, which I often use as my workplace. The city is waking up. It feels like Sana’a is a village. I hear birds singing, children playing, the horn of a car, and a woman speaking through a microphone. From up here you can see the many solar panels that cover the city and allow people to use a fridge, lights and electricity. They are an important source of energy since you can’t be sure that generators, which run on fuel, will be working, especially with the 40-60 per cent increase in fuel prices and lack of fuel since the blockade.

8:00 AM: Breakfast with colleagues is generally a good time to share the latest security information. Every week we send an update on the number of our international staff in Yemen to the UN so that they can plan for possible evacuations. In total, there are about 120 international NGO staff members in Yemen and we are all stuck here because of the blockade (since lifted). One of them told me that he will probably miss his son’s birthday.

8:30 AM: The office is across the street. Our guards make sure we get safely to the other side. I take time to greet all the staff members in the office. The CARE Yemen team is very good – I have rarely seen such committed and qualified staff. Some have been with us for more than ten years. Just as I get to my desk, I receive a brief update on the security situation. More airstrikes! They become part of our daily routine. I wonder how many have died this time…

10:00 AM: One of our area managers calls me. After we finally got permission to work in some parts of Hodeidah, I am told that the area has been declared a military zone. I have no idea what that means, but the result is that we cannot work there. Because we did a needs assessment in another area, we ask the relevant authorities whether we can work there. It looks good. This means that the people in the military zone will not be able to receive our help, but others will.

11:00 AM: More crises mean more meetings. This one is on our food distributions together with the World Food Program. I inform the safety staff where I want to go and at what time. They check whether it is a safe environment and organise a car and a driver. Once I get into the car, I turn on my tracker so that the operations room knows where I am.

1:00 PM: As I am on my way to yet another meeting with partners and donors, I hear gunshots. Although I am inside the UN compound, I feel very vulnerable – even if the shooting is not aimed at us. The donors are interested in hearing how the blockade affects our humanitarian response. We explain that because of existing stocks in the country, we can continue business as usual. But we also make clear that if the harbour does not open soon, new supplies will arrive too late. The blockade is also affecting local markets, with prices for food and other supplies skyrocketing. There is not a lot of money in circulation because government salaries have not been paid in over a year. Someone said that if famine occurs, all people will die at the same time because Yemenis are used to sharing even their scarce resources with one another.

4:00 PM: Today’s lunch: a packet of biscuits that I shared with colleagues during the afternoon meetings. I receive a security update regarding the threats one of our staff members received on the phone a few days ago. We are still not sure who was behind it but we know that the situation for aid workers continues to be dangerous.

5:30 PM: Interviews with a Dutch radio station and ABC Australia. We mainly talk about the deteriorating situation. More than seven million people depend on outside food aid. There’s a real shortage of water, health care and so much more. This blockade needs to stop. When the journalists ask what we can do, I think they realise how difficult the situation is. However I tell them that we will continue as long as we can with the limited amount of funds we have. We don’t give up hope and we call on governments to build up more political pressure.

8:00 PM: Finally I get some time to eat. Our cook has left some lovely food in the fridge. Halfway through the meal I do another live radio interview. My wife thinks I will become famous, but these interviews are serious business. It is about informing the general public about this terrible development.

9:00 PM: While I am watching the news, I fall asleep. After ten minutes our safety officer calls up to say that there are airstrikes in various places in Hajja and Sana’a. Maybe also in other places but we don’t know yet. I decide to stay awake for a bit longer just to make sure that the airstrikes don’t happen in our neighbourhood. We have a basement which we use when the airstrikes get too close. I check our emergency food supplies which would allow us to survive for about 15 days. I need to talk to our safety staff because we need to discuss a second exit from the basement in case our neighborhood is hit.

11:00PM Time to go to bed. I feel satisfied with all the work that was done. I am proud to be part of the CARE Yemen team. But I am also worried about what the future holds. Unless this blockade is lifted, the lives of millions of people are at stake.

Johan Mooij is the Yemen Country Director for CARE