“We don’t have blankets to cover ourselves,” says Aafia, one of thousands of internally displaced people sheltering in Marib governorate, Yemen. “My children have no warm clothes and I don’t have enough food to feed them.”
The scene in Marib is a gloomy snapshot of how millions of Yemenis are suffering as a result of the seven-year-long conflict. About 150 formal and informal sites, both large and small, host thousands of families who have sought safety in Marib from across the country. An even larger number of displaced people are staying with locals in the area.
As the conflict spread, Yemenis from across the country migrated to Marib, previously considered as the safest place in the country. Development of infrastructure and increased economic opportunities over recent years had also made Marib an attractive location. Today however, with the escalation of conflict, the situation in Marib has changed.
Violence in Marib governorate is intensifying as warring parties fight to claim control over an area that is important for its geographic location, oil and gas resources, and military weight. A city that previously hosted half a million people, according to local authorities, is now home to nearly three million people. Most of the displaced people are totally reliant on humanitarian assistance, although it does not always reach them.
Abdu Sabit is one of many people waiting for humanitarian assistance to arrive. He has no means of earning money to support his extended family of 31 people, who share two small tents in Marib’s Al-Khuseif site.
“We only have tea and bread,” says Abdu, who is originally from Taiz and has been displaced twice already. “It has been a month since my family and I had a proper meal. We would take anything given to us as help.”
Getting hold of enough to eat is not the only problem faced by displaced people. Many of those living in camps lack basic necessities including shelter materials, blankets, clean water and latrines. Most of the temporary shelters are made from bushes and branches plucked from the desert.
Winter in the desert of Marib is merciless with strong cold winds and temperatures falling below 10°C. Without mattresses to sleep on or blankets to cover themselves with, many people struggle to keep warm. Some have built walls of sandbags to prevent the cold wind from entering their homes. The precarious and unhygienic living conditions and the lack of safe water are a major health risk.
Aid response is inadequate
Our teams have been providing basic medical services through eight mobile clinics and a primary healthcare centre. We have been receiving an increasing number of patients, especially children, suffering from diseases related to the poor sanitation and harsh living conditions. In the three months from October to December 2021, our teams saw a 44 per cent increase in patients from the previous three months; 66 per cent of these patients were children. There was also an 11 per cent increase in malnutrition cases.
“Marib’s humanitarian crisis could result in a health crisis,” says Dr Muhammad Shoaib, MSF medical coordinator in Yemen. “The consequences of people’s living conditions on their physical and psychological wellbeing are already alarming.
“There is a high risk of disease outbreaks including measles, cholera and COVID-19. Health and humanitarian organisations need to be proactive in preventing a catastrophic health situation,” he says. “Organisations working in Marib must increase their activities with regards to food, water and sanitation, shelter and healthcare.”
In 2021, Marib saw multiple violent attacks resulting in mass casualties and displacement. More than 78,000 individuals were displaced within or to Marib governorate last year, estimates the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Intense fighting continues on the city’s outskirts, causing yet more people to be displaced from their homes, and presenting a constant threat to those who arrived in the area in search of safety.
“We really feel afraid, day and night,” says Abdu, whose family is sheltering just a few kilometres from the frontline. “Usually, there is a break of an hour or so and then we start hearing fighting again. I am not worried for myself, but for my children. If the explosions come closer, we will just take some water and run. I don’t know where we’d go – we would just run away.”
Conflict brings more misery to vulnerable people
The effects of the conflict are having a particular impact on two of the area’s most vulnerable groups: African migrants and the Muhamasheen community (the marginalised ones) – a minority ethnic group who frequently face discrimination and live in deep-seated poverty. Even when the frontline shifts, putting their lives at risk, these people often lack the capacity and resources to move to safety.
The arrival of newly displaced people in the area is putting Marib under increasing stress in terms of meeting people’s needs. The humanitarian assistance available is insufficient while many migrants have seen their aid reduced or shared with other vulnerable groups.
“We are 40 women living in one tent,” says 20-year-old Arkani, one of hundreds of migrants from Ethiopia currently stuck in Yemen. “We need something to eat, something to drink and something to wear. We don’t have warm clothes, blankets or sheets to survive the cold weather.”
Marib’s humanitarian crisis could result in a health crisis. Health and humanitarian organisations need to be proactive in preventing a catastrophic health situation.Dr Muhammad Shoaib, MSF medical coordinator in Yemen
“Food, shelter and water – that is it,” says Ahmad, a member of the Muhamasheen. “We don’t want to have a big house or buy land. All we need is food, shelter and blankets in winter.”
“Marib is in an emergency situation. As a humanitarian community, we need to address the current needs, while preparing for a possible increase of needs in the near future,” says Elisabeth Bijtelaar, MSF head of mission in Yemen.
“Marib is a classic example of what Yemenis are going through. As the governorate makes headlines because of the security incidents and frontlines, we must not forget that the whole country is suffering from consequences of the long-standing war.”