Yemen Country Director Giorgio Trombatore is based in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a and is responsible for a country team of more than 150 staff members and for programmes – funded by the European Union – who operate from offices in Aden, Taizz and Sana’a to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need.
He recently accompanied a convoy carrying medications and other supplies delivered to a hospital about 100 miles away in the northwestern town of Sa’da.
This is his account of the trip…
On a day in late October we reached the town of Sa’da with a feeling of accomplishment – we had managed to arrive with a convoy of trucks carrying much-needed medications donated by the U.S. Government’s Office for Disaster Assistance.
The journey to Sa’da from our main office in Sana’a is only about 100 miles, but unstable and unpredictably dangerous security conditions along the route had forced us to delay the trip on several occasions. Air strikes have been especially heavy throughout much of northern Yemen since open conflict broke out in March of last year.
When we finally received the green light from local authorities in Sa’da, we set off for the north with a convoy of three heavily-loaded trucks accompanied by a small team of physicians and logistics specialists. Many of them had never visited Sa’da and weren’t sure what to expect. The security bulletins were a cause for concern – with reports of escalated fighting along Yemen’s northern border.
As we approached Sa’da the signs of war: destroyed bridges and burned out trucks, gradually became more frequent.
Sa’da is located in a very dry part of the country, sitting amid barren mountains at an altitude of more than 6,000 feet. There were many beautiful sights visible from the car windows as we entered the town, but so too were the characteristic and unmistakable signs of the war all around. The town itself is small (its pre-war population was around 50,000) and damaged buildings are a tragic sight for any passer-by to see.
While the focus of International Medical Corps’ work is on providing emergency assistance to those affected, a look at Sa’da is a reminder that we are losing important elements of our world heritage as well. The reality is that parts of a great civilisation are disappearing—an irreplaceable loss for this generation and those to follow.
Yet what struck me most about this trip was the deafening silence.
As I entered Sa’da’s main al Jumhouria hospital where some of the medicines we had delivered were being distributed, I had a chance to accompany a local doctor as he made his rounds, visiting the patients—many of them young soldiers with injuries sustained in the war.
There were hundreds of young Yemeni boys, averaging maybe 16 or 17 years-old. All were silent. There were no screams of pain, of anger or of desperation. Only silence.
I have never seen so many young people gathered in a single room show no sign of life. It was a sharp contrast to the hospitals of Europe and the United States where mainly older people are being treated. Here they were all so young, so quiet and still.
The doctors introduced me to every patient. Invariably they nodded, acknowledging questions with a simple yes or a no. Many were amputees, some had burns. Most were victims of bombing. Some patients had family members sitting on the floor around them. Others were completely alone. All wore an ID bracelet on their arm so they could be identified if the worst happened.
I met a young boy sitting on a bed next to his father whose leg had just been amputated. The nurse told me the same boy had been hospitalised the previous month when his arm was amputated. The sight of father and son together was a powerful image. They both looked at me, clearly a foreigner, and said nothing.
In another room I saw a young boy standing half naked in the middle of the room, his face completely burned. I approached him and asked him how old he was. He told me he was 16 and as he spoke I could see how his once youthful complexion had been lost to the heavy scarring which now identified him to his loved ones. He said he’d been injured in a bomb explosion.
Finally, we entered a ward for malnourished children. Mothers and other relatives sat close to their little ones. Many had come from villages close to Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia. Most of the health centres there had been destroyed so these mothers had come to Sa’da. The paediatrician told me some mothers had waited too long – many children had failed to survive the journey and had died along the way.
Far from the streets of Sana’a where life tends to go on with only minor interruptions, I was now face to face with those who had paid the true cost of this conflict. It is an experience I will not soon forget.
At the end of the day we met with local health officials at a busy restaurant. Young men came and went—all wearing typical Yemeni dress. All were armed.
I realised that as the fighting continues, many of them may lose limbs or their lives before reaching adulthood.
If they were lucky, they will be identified by the bracelet each wore on their arm. Many more will simply vanish from their homes, their families and their communities. Lost like the heritage, the medical care and the future of a country being torn apart from the inside.