A life in the balance

A life in the balance


Born just before the outbreak of Yemen's devastating war, Ali Mohammed al-Tawaari may well not survive it.

Damaged by a lack of skilled medical care at a critical moment in his early weeks, the six-month-old infant struggles for life in a hospital in the bomb-damaged capital Sanaa.

Ali suffers malnourishment and complications from a botched circumcision performed by an unqualified practitioner.

. Sanaa, Yemen. Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

"He is dying, you can see it," said his mother Wadha, watching his tiny skeletal figure.

"I want to turn him to the Kaaba," she said, referring to the ancient cubic shrine in Mecca which all Muslims face when they pray and when they are buried.

He was admitted to an intensive care unit at al-Sabeen hospital in the city's Haddah neighbourhood, where nurses treat infants suffering malnutrition, their skin stretched tight over the bones of wasted figures.

. Sanaa, Yemen. Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

When the war began in March between the country’s Houthi movement and an exiled government backed by Gulf Arab states, hundreds of foreign, mostly Asian medical staff members were evacuated to their countries, leaving their jobs in Yemeni hospitals.

Local medics, nurses and doctors also left the places they were working in to go back to their home areas.

. Sanaa, Yemen. Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

The rural district three hours from Sanaa where Ali's family lives was one of the areas that lost qualified medical staff.

Without their skills, routine problems can turn lethal.

Wadha said that Ali's problems began when he was circumcised incorrectly. He bled for a whole day after the operation and later suffered diarrhea.

When he arrived at Sabeen "his condition improved the first day, but now it's deteriorated."

Malnutrition complicated Ali's state of health.

. Sanaa, Yemen. Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

Disruptions of daily life caused by war have also deprived many Yemenis of their livelihoods, robbing people like Ali's parents of the financial means to help their children.

"We had a decent life before the war started, we had a business and were cultivating crops,” Wadha said. “But now diesel became expensive and my husband cannot pay for water."

Even before the war, Yemen had one of the highest child malnutrition rates in the world, according to the World Food Programme. Around half of all children under five are stunted, too short for their age as a result of malnutrition.

. Sanaa, Yemen. Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

Yemen normally imports almost 90 percent of its basic food from abroad. The U.N. emergency food agency said on July 30 that the impact of traders being unable to import enough food and safely move it inside the country has led to a severe rise in prices, increasing the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable.

The U.N. children's agency UNICEF said on July 10 it was stepping up screening for malnutrition, vaccinations and other life-saving interventions for millions of Yemeni children caught up in the crisis.

More than 16,000 children have been treated for severe malnutrition and 1.3 million children in the country are at risk of malnutrition, it said.

"But what Yemen really needs now is a return to peace, a solution to the fuel and power crisis and restoration of regular health services," Julien Harneis, UNICEF representative in Yemen, said in a statement.

For Ali, that may come too late.

Wadha gazed at her son. "If you look at his face, you can see that death is approaching."