Wednesday 18 September 2019

'I saw my friends melting, burning like oil'

As the only foreign journalist reporting from war-ravaged Hajjah in Yemen, Fergal Keane hopes he can awaken the world to the suffering

FORGOTTEN WAR: Journalist Fergal Keane highlights the plight of the tragic, malnourished children caught up in the bitter conflict in Yemen
FORGOTTEN WAR: Journalist Fergal Keane highlights the plight of the tragic, malnourished children caught up in the bitter conflict in Yemen
Malnourished child caught up in the bitter conflict in Yemen

Fergal Keane

Let no one tell you there is a such a thing as a forgotten war. War is never forgotten. Not by the terrorised and the dying, nor by the men who drop bombs, or those who shell and snipe, or by those who give them orders, or by the powerful nations who pursue their national interest in the ruins of other people's lands.

If war is forgotten it is only as a matter of convenience, or as an accommodation with briefly troubled conscience. Only the dead forget forever.

The war is not forgotten by Dr Noman Hajeb as his fingers trace gently along the paling skin that is stretched like gossamer over the ribs of baby Judah Jaber.

She is four months old and has been fighting to survive since the day she was born. "Severe malnutrition," the doctor says. He is weary and has few words. But what else does he need to tell me? Everything that needs to be known lies in the wasting frame on the bed, and fixes me with a stare that will not let go. I think of lines Paul Durcan showed me, many years ago, about "huge, forever upward looking eyes".

There are a half-a-million such infants in Yemen's war. The rates of child malnutrition have increased by 200pc since the conflict began nearly two years ago.

Medical science tells us that when a child succumbs to acute malnutrition the body can experience agonising cramps. The skin changes colour. The belly distends. Limbs shrivel and become impossibly slender. If you hear the child cry, if it can still twist in pain, then life is still fighting back. It is the listlessness that signals the point of defeat.

Mothers who are exhausted and traumatised, who are themselves sick, cannot breastfeed. Roads and bridges along which aid might travel are bombed. The Saudi-led coalition imposes a stranglehold on the delivery of food and medicine. The supplies that are allowed into the country can be delayed by the Iranian-backed rebels who want to control its distribution, or who are too disorganised and untrained to ensure the welfare of their people.

None of this is new. I have been watching it in wars for 30 years. For the combatants, the prosecution of a war has always taken precedence over the life of a child. Cause and effect: from the exploding shell to the last rattle of life in an infant chest. And in between how many desperate moments, how many million lies and equivocations?

On the roads towards the Saudi border we listen for the sound of jets. It is a curious thing how you begin to grade the level of terror in war zones. If I am in a war where there is air power I find myself longing for a place like Ukraine where there is only artillery, and if I am under artillery fire I yearn for the comparative security of a battle with only rifles. In writing these lines I realise what a perverse order of preferences this must seem. But nothing churns my gut like the sound of a military jet in the skies.

We pass burned-out lorries and pickups. The town of Ahim is emptied. Its bustling life has been smashed into millions of pieces of rubble and glass. Outside town we meet some farmers who have not yet fled and they complain of what has been done to their lives. Then we hear the noise of a jet. Our driver Mohammed faces towards Mecca and begins to pray. The choice is to remain and hide in buildings or drive away. We drive off over the dirt road towards the town. Nothing happens.

Two weeks before in this same place an airstrike killed 10 farmers on their way to the market in Hiran. I meet one of the survivors in hospital. The men were travelling in a pickup truck. This is what Abdullah told me: "I saw fire. Some of my body was burnt, also my hair, and part of my head, part of my arm, and also part of my leg. I saw my friends melting. I saw them in pieces and they were melting. Melting. The body of a human burns like it's oil." As he tells me this, there is a look of disbelief in the man's eyes. How is it that men and boys who were joking and laughing with him one minute were reduced to smoking flesh in the next? He has lost his right leg below the knee.

Half of the medical facilities in the country are no longer functioning. The coalition, which is armed and politically backed by Britain and America, has bombed hospitals, claiming that the strikes were errors. Last week, Medecins Sans Frontieres, whose hospital in the town of Aps was bombed by the coalition last August, demanded an international inquiry. There is no sign that there will be any such investigation. The Saudis will resist and they control the airspace through which any investigators would have to travel.

Most people in the countryside are too poor to afford transport to the remaining hospitals. Do you buy food to keep your remaining children alive, or to pay for a sick baby to go to hospital? Such are the choices that face the Yemeni people at the end of the year 2016.

When my colleagues and I arrive in a rural village, people come to us with their sick infants. A boy crouches with his baby sister.

An old man stands with his arms embracing the shoulders of his hungry grandchildren.

We are white, well- nourished, and well- dressed, representatives of the secure and ordered world. Aisha Ali Ali, who lost one child to malnutrition five months ago, presented her chronically ill four-month-old daughter Asma. The child's eyes have yellowed from liver problems.

"We need treatment, if you have. What do you have? Any treatment, any medicines? We need anything… if you can give us any thank you." We have nothing to give. I cannot bring myself to say the old line about hoping that our reporting will awaken the world to their suffering. It might open the eyes of compassionate people. But it will not end the war that is at the heart of all this wretchedness. Three million Yemenis have been displaced by the war.

On a waterless, baking plain at Al Mahjoub, 17,000 people exist in shelters made of plastic, straw and mud. A man in a bright yellow shirt comes forward with a malnourished and severely disabled infant.

I ask Ghaleb Shoei why he has come to us. "Because maybe you are from an organisation that can help us, or maybe you can raise our voices, our suffering to others."

Like everybody else, he thanks us. For what? What the war takes away nobody can give back.

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