Staff speak out about work in a conflict zone


July 8, 2015

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  • Through months of civil war our brave staff in Yemen have continued Mercy Corps' work whenever possible. As the conflict rages on, they're focused on meeting the emergency needs of families affected by the crisis. All photos: Mercy Corps

“The mood of people has changed. We are afraid. When we leave our homes in the morning, we don’t know if we’re going to come home again,” says Mercy Corps team member Nadeen*. “The fighting is scary. It keeps us up at night and alert when commuting between home and office.”

Nadeen is reporting from the ground in her home country of Yemen, where several months of conflict have wreaked havoc on what was already the poorest nation in the Middle East. Violent clashes there have forced more than 1 million people to flee their homes. And 21.1 million people — 80 percent of the population — are now in need of humanitarian aid.

But reaching desperate families in such a volatile setting is not easy.

Through a spotty internet connection, we recently spoke with Nadeen and Selam*, two of our Yemeni staff members, about what it’s like to live and work in a conflict zone. They helped us understand how our team there is managing to persevere despite shelling, electricity outages, food shortages and other harrowing conditions.

Mercy Corps has worked in Yemen since 2010 on initiatives like rehabilitating community infrastructure, providing youth support, and improving hygiene facilities and practices in rural schools.

And since civil war erupted earlier this year, our staff have worked tirelessly to continue. Today, we’re focused on meeting urgent emergency needs — food, water — of families who are caught in the crossfire.

Prior to the conflict, we helped rural communities improve their sanitation systems by promoting environmental hygiene, trash cleanups and proper disposal of garbage.

Even before the war, Yemen struggled with extreme poverty, poor infrastructure and high levels of child malnutrition. The country imports nearly all of its food and medical supplies. And it doesn’t have an adequate water supply system, either.

Now, these precarious conditions have been greatly exacerbated. Persistent fighting prevents the critical imports families rely on. And extreme fuel shortages mean movement is near impossible, and essential services that run on diesel, like hospital generators, water pumps and garbage collection, are shut down.

Simply put, there is not enough water, food, fuel, sanitation, shelter or medicine — not by a long shot.

“Every day life has become miserable and challenging. The prices have doubled, tripled,” explains Nadeen. “The majority of people, either rural or urban, lack even the most basic things. Water, food, medical supplies.”

“People have become more aggressive when dealing with each other,” she continues. “When the water truck comes, people are pushing to get their jerry cans filled. They are fighting for the water, which is very scarce. This was not the case before.”

Selam explains that movement is extremely limited — only on a good day can they leave the house in the morning to wait in line for bread or other food.

She is sheltering in an apartment with 15 other family members. They will go days without electricity, and they are often surrounded by the sounds of shooting and shouting, and the smell of bombing.

During these times, she says, they close the windows and pray.

“Even when I’m home, I’m working from home. The situation insists,” says Selam. “We have to keep working. This is our life, how we can help our people.”

The intensity of the conflict — airstrikes, roadblocks, armed clashes, fuel and electricity shortages — has clearly made humanitarian operations in the country extremely dangerous and difficult.

But Mercy Corps staff are showing incredible bravery and dedication to their communities, enduring whenever possible and adapting when necessary.

“Implementation of our ongoing programs has become very challenging, but we are still doing our best,” says Nadeen. “We carried out our activities during airstrikes and fighting. We had to come up with alternative solutions, but we stayed committed to respond to the needs of the Yemeni people.”

Educating students about handwashing and other vital hygiene practices in rural schools is one example of the work Mercy Corps staff and volunteers sustained despite the conflict.

When recent clashes prevented regular Mercy Corps staff from reaching remote schools to conduct hygiene programs, trained community volunteers led hygiene education activities, like teaching handwashing to students.

Proper hygiene is especially vital for families to protect themselves during the current crisis. The country’s sanitation and health systems have collapsed under the weight of the conflict, and the shortage of clean water means people are at an even greater risk of disease.

And as the population of displaced people skyrockets, Mercy Corps is including them in current programming and developing new ways to provide the critical support they need.

“With the current crisis, people have become even more vulnerable,” says Nadeen. “A household of five now has 15 to 20 members, but the resources are the same or there’s even less available. External aid is critical to meet the increasing needs of these households.”

Mercy Corps recently reopened its two offices in Yemen that had been forced to close because of the fighting. Now, with three operational offices in the country and over 100 staff members, our goal is to give Yemenis the immediate assistance they need to survive as the clashes continue.

We’re focused on delivering food — flour, oil, rice, beans — to families in conflict zones and in rural communities where many of the displaced are sheltering. We’re also distributing safe water and hygiene supplies to help prevent disease.

“For me, it is all about my commitment to the beneficiaries, more than anything else,” says Nadeen. “If the communities are struggling to survive and the community volunteers are doing their best, then I remain motivated even through difficult times.”

“The future is black but we are optimistic something will change,” adds Selam. “Yemeni people are great. They know the meaning of resilience.”

*Note: The names of these staff members have been changed to protect their identity and safety.