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As U.N. Talks On Yemen Loom, Voices From The Humanitarian Crisis


Now we're going to hear from people struggling through the war in Yemen. The U.N. says it's organizing peace talks to end it. The conflict had escalated dramatically in 2015 when Saudi Arabia, with U.S. help, began an offensive against Houthi rebels who are backed by Iran. Thousands have died in that proxy battle. Famine caused by the conflict may kill even more. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reached out to Yemenis to understand what daily life is like there.

RABAB ABDULLAH: (Speaking Arabic).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Rabab Abdullah gathers supplies to bring to camps and even caves where Yemen's refugees shelter. She says too often there, she sees mothers who hold children emaciated, shrunken and deathly still in their arms.

ABDULLAH: (Through interpreter) The worse stories are the children - when you see the malnourished children. Some lose their lives before they even get to the hospital.

SHERLOCK: Abdullah, a university professor of economics before the war, says everywhere she goes, she finds scenes that haunt her.

ABDULLAH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: As we talk on the phone, she sends me a photo of a little girl Hind. She's 5 years old but is so small that she looks like a newborn. She's wrapped in a pink blanket and wears a baby-blue knitted cap.

ABDULLAH: (Through interpreter) She was suffering from severe malnutrition. Her bones were sticking out of her skin. She was sent to a hospital. But 48 hours later, she died. A 5 year old - never got to see any pretty things in her life, never got to make any of her dreams come true.

SHERLOCK: The United Nations says some 400,000 children will suffer acute malnutrition by the end of this year. And half the country of 28 million people is at risk of famine. Yemen relies overwhelmingly on imports for its food. The Saudi-led coalition who backs the government controls much of the airspace and has blockaded ports. Houthi rebels meanwhile have planted mines that make it dangerous for trucks to move around the country. And what food there is is so expensive that many just can't afford it, says Abdullah.

ABDULLAH: (Through interpreter) There are also no jobs available. So how can a man feed his family if he does not have any work? What we are going through is a manmade disaster. It is not war. It's a humanitarian catastrophe. I see children eating tiny pieces of bread soaked in water. That's all they have for breakfast, lunch and for their dinner.

SHERLOCK: Yemen is now a place where the aid workers themselves struggle to survive.

NASIM AL-ODANY: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Abdullah's colleague Nasim al-Odany is a 29-year-old who lives in Taiz, a city close to front lines. She says by phone that she and her family try to maintain a semblance of normal life, especially for her younger siblings.

ODANY: (Through interpreter) I'm constantly worried about them also. I worry when they're in their beds and when they go to school. I worry a rocket will land where they are. Neither side of the conflict cares about civilians. There have been too many violations of human rights and decency.

SHERLOCK: As well as the violence and the food blockades, there are arbitrary arrests where local aid workers and journalists who try to highlight the situation are targeted.

ODANY: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: Odany lists the names of colleagues that have been arrested or killed.

ODANY: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She blames the world for not doing enough to stop the war. The U.S. and the United Kingdom provide Saudi Arabia with the weaponry it needs for the offensive even as they try to influence peace talks.

ODANY: (Through interpreter) When we needed the world, it abandoned us. I do not know what to say anymore. They are supposed to be on the side of the humanitarians, to stand by us.

SHERLOCK: Odany has little hope for a cease-fire, let alone an end to the war. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLOFILZ'S "DULCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.