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Yemen eye-witness: ‘Even if we survive the bombs we are running out of food’

Oxfam has been working in Yemen for 30 years. Over 60 percent of the population – 16 million people – were already in need of some form of aid before the airstrikes started.

More than 10 million Yemenis did not have enough food to eat before the crisis. Already, over 13 million people had no access to clean water and nearly nine million people were unable to access basic medical care.

An Oxfam staff worker has written the below blog describing what life has been like in Yemen over the past week.

Yemen is a country of unpredictables. You never know what is going on. Sometimes – like now – that makes it both emotionally and psychologically exhausting.

Change started in Yemen in 2011, with the Arab Spring reaching the country. We all hoped that was the first step towards a better future. People were very enthusiastic back then – people were excited.

But in September 2014 the security situation deteriorated. The government changed without warning, the transition period seemed to stop. All of us – including the 16 million or so of my countrymen and women who are desperate need of aid – were once again living every day without knowing what would happen next. The 600,000 people that Oxfam were helping were going to need aid even more.

Homes destroyed in Yemen. Before the crisis over 13 million people had no access to clean water. Photo: Abbo Haitham/Oxfam

Then on March 25, the airstrikes began. At first, the streets were empty – it was like they had been abandoned. It was scary. But today, despite reports of the death toll rising, there are people in the streets because they have started to cope with life now. For me and my fellow Yemenis living in fear and never knowing what’s round the corner, this is ‘normal’.

But it should not be like this. For a long time there has been severe humanitarian crisis in the country, now there could be a humanitarian catastrophe unless a permanent ceasefire is agreed and humanitarian access is granted.

Even if we survive the bombs we are running out of food. My brother went to buy food yesterday; he said that several shops were out of flour. There was none in the markets close to where I live either. When you go out you see long queues of cars waiting for petrol at the gas stations. Yemen could suffer a real food and fuel crisis. More than 60% of the Yemeni people are already under the poverty line – Oxfam was trying to make the world wake up to the desperate situation that many people in Yemen face even before the latest fighting started. Now I fear for my family but we are much better off than many people who were already struggling to survive.

People search under rubble of houses destroyed in Yemen. Over 60% of population needed some form of aid before conflict Photo: Abbo Haitham/Oxfam

Yemen imports practically all of its food, petrol, everything! Now our borders are closed and there are no flights coming in or supply ships docking. We are now living with the tiny amount of what Yemen already has but this is running out fast.

What is going to happen? That’s the million dollar question. I am not sure. Nobody is sure. It is all rumours that we hear. I’m not expecting it to end soon. Even if the violence stopped, the massive humanitarian need is going to go on and on. At the moment humanitarian agencies such as Oxfam are trying to reach the areas where people are caught up in the fighting to give them the aid that they need.

But we need the access and security to go where these people are and in many places it is simply too dangerous at the moment. Where it is safe to do so, Oxfam is already assessing the impact of the conflict on people’s lives and the needs they have, so we can plan a quick response.

Homes destroyed in Yemen. Over 60% of the population already needed some form of aid before conflict. Photo: Abbo Haitham/Oxfam

I started working with Oxfam in Yemen in July 2014 as a programme manager focusing on women’s rights. Working with Oxfam made me continue to feel the positive sense of change and of the importance of the growing participation of women in life in Yemen.

Then a few months later, in September, the insecurity started. It was like Yemen hit the rewind button, and after the feeling of positive change that started in 2011 we went back to the uncertainty of before. I can remember that day when it all started. I was at work and my mother was with my younger brothers and sisters at home. My whole family all moved to my grandmother’s house. This was even closer to the fighting than our home – but at least we were together.

What makes me really sad is that this prolonged insecurity has become normal to me, my friends and family. People with guns and armoured vehicles in the street became normal to see every day before you go to school, to work, to the market, when of course it is not. Now we can add air strikes to that list.

Inside a house destroyed in Yemen. Before the crisis more than 10 million Yemenis did not have enough food to eat. Photo: Abbo Haitham/Oxfam

I am usually optimistic, but I’m not now. Even if the conflict ends soon the humanitarian situation will unfold. Then the shock and the extent of the suffering here in Yemen will become apparent. Only then we will know what this conflict has left behind.

  • Since 2011, Oxfam has provided assistance to nearly 600,000 people affected by the humanitarian crisis.
  • In Al Hodeidah and Hajjah in Western Yemen, Oxfam has given cash transfers to 400,000 people since 2011 to help them buy food and support their basic needs. Oxfam has been is working with 32 communities to help rebuild their livelihoods through cash for work schemes and scaling up social protection programmes.
  • Oxfam responded to the 2014 fuel crisis with the distribution of water filters to 3,300 vulnerable households and a cash transfer to an additional 1,000 households in western Yemen.
  • Since 2012 Oxfam has rehabilitated water systems in 41 rural communities in western Yemen, providing more than 125,000 vulnerable people with safe drinking water.
  • In the north in Sa’ada governorate, where years of conflict have destroyed infrastructure and created significant access constraints, Oxfam working on repairing and installing water sources, and has reached 58,000 people. We have also delivered vital water and sanitation services to communities in Aden and Abyan in the south.
  • Together with partners, Oxfam is working to empower women economically, socially, and politically to have a say in decision making at all levels.
  • Planning for the longer term, Oxfam is piloting three solar pump drinking water systems, reaching more than 20,000 beneficiaries in three communities.
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In with the old and make it new

Oxfam Ireland recently teamed up with Studio Souk and Voluntary Arts Ireland to highlight some of the imaginative and waste-reducing ways in which people can take something unwanted and make it something beautiful.

Visitors and passers-by to our Oxfam Home shop in Belfast could be forgiven for wondering what exactly was going on the shop window recently, as three ladies were to be observed on their knees, in paint-splattered aprons, taking spray cans, sandpaper, staplers, stencils and screwdrivers to some of the furniture that was for sale in the shop.

But no, they weren’t vandalising Oxfam’s stock, just the opposite. The answer? It was a live hands-on demonstration by Oxfam partners Studio Souk – a Belfast-based collective of creative businesses – to mark the #LovetoUPCYCLE campaign. The aim is to highlight how imaginative and creative upcycling can reduce waste by turning old and otherwise unwanted items into fabulous and desirable new pieces.

As Linzi Rooney, Studio Souk Director, explains, “Upcycling helps sustain the environment around us and most importantly to reduce landfill, which at this time is at a critical condition. Upcycling gives an individual the ability to express themselves and their personality through an item, whether it be an unused wardrobe or an old cup and saucer, and to create something unique.”

The day before the demo I had met with Linzi to select a few items from the Oxfam shop floor that would best be suit the makeover demonstration. We finally selected a nest of walnut tables, a set of drawers and an open-top pine chest with a cushioned seat.

 

Before upcycling… All the items were sourced from the Oxfam Home store. Photos by Phillip Graham/Oxfam

The next morning, the creatives – Linzi, Madeleine, Paula, with assistance from Bobby – set to work. They quickly earned my admiration for how they could see beyond the temporary faults of the tired furniture and only visualise how its potential could be unleashed with a bit of crafty TLC and upcycling.

I wasn’t the only one admiring their skills. While the ladies were busy with their heads down, hard at work, I could witness how their creative efforts were drawing appreciative glances from the shop’s customers.

Indeed more than one shopper was so curious and eager about the items craftily being upcycled that they ignored the BBC and Northern Visions TV crews who were filming us, so as to get up close and personal with the furniture – almost knocking over the pots of paint on the floor in the process. Talk about an interactive workshop!

 

During… creatives at work in the Dublin Road Oxfam Home store, Belfast. Clockwise, from top left: Linzi Rooney, Studio Souk Director; Madeleine Beattie; Bobby Kleinmeuman and Paula McVeigh. Photos by Phillip Graham/Oxfam

All the items of furniture were given a new lease of life with vibrant Spring colours using chalk paints.

Paula took what was a rather ordinary chest of white drawers, sanded them back, before applying a beautifully bright pink coat of chalk paint. On the top, Paula used a stencil to paint a sky of clouds and balloons in a blue sky to revitalise a piece of furniture that is now both fun and practical, perfect for a young girl’s bedroom. Linzi also suggested that with more time the handles, could be changed, using domestic cutlery for a quirky touch.

Meanwhile, Madeleine was working on the pine chest, which she dismantled and stripped back, before treating it to some lemon yellow chalk paint. The chest top was removed at the hinges and the seat’s tired tweedy cushion covering was made over with the aid of some blue linen material which had also been found in the shop. The visually-striking chest was then re-assembled and reborn, ready to find a new loving home.

Linzi was giving a makeover to a dark walnut nest of tables, the top one of which was missing a glass insert. Linzi set about painting all three in a vibrant green (the Oxfam green, appropriate for the environmentally-friendly initiative!), and after 2 coats of paint sanded it back to better reveal the detailing.

Bobby, an Australian by birth and a sewer by craft, also assisted the Studio Souk Creatives throughout. Bobby also endeared herself to the Oxfam Home staff when she bought a dresser and other items from the shop – no doubt they too will be lovingly made over in due course.

 

… and after. All items of furniture were given a new lease of life with vibrant Spring colours using chalk paints. Photos by Phillip Graham/Oxfam

If, like Bobby, you buy materials, furniture, clothing or anything you like from one of Oxfam’s stores and show us (via our Facebook and Twitter pages) how you like to upcycle them, you will be invited to a free upcycling workshop, teaching you even more ways to get creative with your lesser-loved possessions.

So why not get in touch with your creative side and get upcycling with the help of items to be found at your local Oxfam shop? You will also be raising vital funds for our work overseas, such as our current emergency response to Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu where families desperately need food, water and sanitation.

In the meantime, for more practical tips and advice on upcycling furniture, fashion and homewares, be sure to check out the blog at www.studiosouk.com.

All items and accessories for upcycling were sourced from the Oxfam Home store, 52-54 Dublin Road, Belfast.

Top tips

  • To give old, unwanted items a new lease of life may mean a bit of basic TLC, with just a bit of chalk paint; or re-upholstering a fabric cover; or perhaps even a bit of lateral thinking to imagine a completely different use for the item altogether.
  • While the makeovers shown here were items of furniture, you could just as easily apply the upcycling lessons to clothing (such as stenciling a new design on an old T-shirt) or homewares (curtains, or reusing them to cover cushions).
  • Express yourself and be an artist in your own right. It’s for you to decide how you want something to be, rather than what the high street dedicates to you. Be inventive, be different – for example, use unused cutlery as drawer handles. Thinking outside of the box not only helps the environment but is loads of fun too!
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The land of the invisible: 51 million people fleeing conflict

Every 4 seconds a person in the world is forced to flee their home. People like Martha, who crossed the Nile carrying three children on her back with another three floating alongside, dodging bullets, with nothing to eat for more than five days. Conflict in her country of South Sudan has forced her and many others to leave everything they know behind.

There are now more than 51 million refugees and people displaced by conflict and violence across the world. This is a record-breaking figure, which surpasses even that of the Second World War.

Above: Okach Mabil (10) walks through mud carrying a sack of grain in the Malakal camp for displaced people in South Sudan. Fighting has forced over two million people from their homes. Simon Rawles/Oxfam

The main cause is the intensification of conflicts, particularly in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, which alone have resulted in over 11 million displaced people and refugees in Syria, over 2 million in South Sudan and 860,000 more in the Central African Republic.

But beyond these raw statistics lies an individual human being – like me and you – who has had to flee, leaving behind belongings, a home, friends and often family. It is very difficult to put into words the bleakness and vulnerability they face.

We cannot allow ourselves to get used to these permanent crises which affects a group of people almost more than ten times the population of the island of Ireland.

They are in need of shelter; blankets and clothes; food and water; security and protection; a job and money to survive.

Above: Um Ali (right) and her husband Abu Ali sit on the floor with some of their children in their shelter in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The Jabaa settlement where they live was set up on agricultural land that turns into sludge come the first rain. “In Syria, I had a washing machine. Now it’s all about hand washing, and with this mud, it’s difficult to keep anything clean,” explains Um. Her husband Abu says “In Syria, I had a car and some goats. I sold them all before I left the country and have since spent all the money in Lebanon. Without humanitarian aid, I don’t know how we can survive.” Joelle Bassoul/Oxfam

Through their taxes, European citizens make it possible for humanitarian aid to save lives. We are collaborating with the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) with the launch of an innovative communications project – EUsavelives, You Save Lives – in which we highlight the experiences of refugees.

The campaign will give a voice to those affected, showing the human side of these crises so that millions of people across Europe are made aware of the reality of everyday life in refugee camps and host communities.

Since 2008 the world has become a less peaceful place. The increase in terrorist activity and conflicts and the endless rise in the number of refugees and displaced people are the facts that demonstrate this. Unfortunately, this increase in violence will have dramatic consequences for millions of people. And it not only affects those people who are already finding it difficult to survive in this situation; many others will be forced to live in violent situations because it is impossible for them to escape from the instability. It is estimated that 500 million people are currently living in countries at risk of conflict.

Above: Yehia* (51) is a farmer from Idlib in Syria. He has been living in this tent in a coastal area of north Lebanon for the past three years. The strong winds blew away the plastic sheets that were the only means of protection against the rain for Yehia and his family. When their ceiling collapsed the family had to cut the tent’s sides with a knife to be able to get out.  Oriol Andrés Gallart/Oxfam

The question is, if you were in their place? A life erased, all to be built again. It is impossible to fully understand what this must be like. It is a duty to try to. So please help us raise awareness and make the invisible refugees visible by sharing, telling a friend or simply clicking here. You save lives. Together we save lives.

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Above: Irish Examiner journalist Noel Baker on his trip to Lebanon with Oxfam & ECHO. Originally broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1's World Report.

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First hand experience from Vanuatu after Cyclone Pam

Oxfam’s Communications Coordinator Amy Christian writes from Port Vila in Vanuatu.

Yesterday I arrived in Vanuatu to join the Oxfam emergency response team as they respond to the aftermath of Cyclone Pam.

As our plane descended into Port Vila, I caught glimpses of the islands that make up Vanuatu between perfectly formed clouds, the blue of the ocean a calm turquoise canvas below. The islands themselves looked ravaged, trees torn and broken and houses left without roofs or walls.

I found myself imagining how different this view would have been just a week before, on the eve of the biggest cyclone to ever hit the Pacific.

After disembarking from our plane we made our way to a briefing with our colleagues who arrived a few days earlier. The streets of Port Vila were a hive of activity, people were busy at work clearing the debris left behind by Cyclone Pam.

Neat piles of fallen branches and bits of tin roofing lay in piles along the roadside; trucks and lorries full-to-the-rafters filled the roads and smoke billowed out across the sky as people burn the waste that can’t be moved. I was surprised at how much has been done and how improved things looked compared to the photos I saw just a few days ago. 

Today I joined the Oxfam team as they carried out their first distribution — hygiene kits were taken to one of the evacuation centres in Port Vila, Lycee Bouganville, a school taking on a new role in the crisis. 
 
Families greeted us with smiles and thanks and showed me where they’d been sleeping for the last week. Gideon, his wife Aileen and their son John, told me they were worried about having to go home as their house had been completely destroyed. 
 
“It will take me several months to rebuild and repair the damage of the cyclone, as I don’t have the finances to build back quickly. I have no money,” Gideon said.
 
 
Photos - Top left: Scenes of devastation in Vanuatu. Top right: Gideon with his wife Aileen and son John. Bottom left: Gideon with his wife Aileen. Bottom right: Oxfam's Amy Christian.
 
“In our community we don’t have any clean water, we used to use a well but that has been contaminated now. In the next few months my biggest worry is food though. At home our garden is damaged so we won’t have any food available.”
 
Gideon and his family moved to the evacuation centre as Cyclone Pam bore down on Vanuatu last Friday. 
 
“When the cyclone happened it sounded like a big whistling sound. I’d never heard anything like it in my life. I was really scared. The walls shook so hard; rain water came inside so we had to move the children up onto the tables.” 
 
Another family sit together outside one of the classrooms cooking lunch— a big bowl of rice and some tinned sardines in tomato juice.  Hager Kulmet tells me she is worried about how much money her family has had to spend on food since arriving last week. 
 
‘”We have had to use all of our savings to buy food because we couldn’t bring any with us. It is becoming very difficult.”
 
Although Hager and her immediate family now live in Port Vila, she is originally from Tanna Island, one of the outer islands hit the worst by Cyclone Pam. 
 
“We have lots of family in Tanna Island and we are very worried about them now because we heard that Tanna suffered very badly in the cyclone,” she said. “We haven’t heard from them since Friday and we can’t get in touch. We’ve heard that people’s houses have been blown away.”
 
As someone who has never lived through a cyclone, much less a Category 5 cyclone, it’s very hard to imagine all of the worries people like Hager and Gideon now face. I’m humbled today, not just by the capacity of nature to rip apart everything in its wake but by the sheer strength of the human spirit which allows people to cope with whatever is thrown at them, to get back up and make plans to start again. 
 
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Eyewitness – Cyclone Pam

Photo: Isso Nihmei/350.org

We have launched an emergency appeal to help people in the island nation of Vanuatu where Cyclone Pam have wreaked devastation. This is likely to be one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific. The scale of humanitarian need will be enormous and the people of Vanuatu are going to need a lot of help to rebuild their homes and their lives. 

Clean water, sanitation and hygiene supplies are a major issue for those left homeless and also those in evacuation centres, where there simply are not enough toilets or clean water for the amount of people in those facilities.

 

Here is a personal account of what it is like to experience the destructive forces of a Category 5 Cyclone from Colin Collett van Rooyen, Country Director, Oxfam in Vanuatu.

It was a dark and stormy night…no, seriously, it really was! Okay, so it never had a chance of being the perfect night in Vanuatu did it? We knew that Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam (we just call her Pam for short) was on her way. We knew (almost) exactly where she was and what her most likely next move would be and we knew that she would only reveal to us her secrets as she arrived over us.

Radios on, candles at the ready, water set out, lock down level red announced and cyclone tracking maps and pens on the table. Nothing unusual for cyclone season in Vanuatu really. This is a country so prone to cyclones that we have tracking maps in the early pages of the telephone directories. What was unusual was not knowing how strong Pam was going to be; how dark and stormy it would all get given that she was a category five cyclone. A rare beast.

Regular radio announcements in calm tones; traditional Vanuatu string band music in-between statements of how harsh things may be when she gets to us. All a bit surreal really. The cyclone shutters boarding up our windows and doors start to shudder, at first gently and irregularly and then faster and constant. Pam is now moving in, getting closer to us at a rate of 10, 15, 20 kilometers per hour. Her eye moves at an astounding speed, creating wind forces of unimaginable speeds.

Can you imagine ‘over 200km an hour’? I couldn’t at the time. But I could hear it. I now know the sound of 200km per hour or more, and I don’t think I would willingly subject myself to it again. Pam arrived announced by the drum roll of our shutters. Then she roared, she squealed, she hissed. She spat and cursed in deep bass tones, and at the same time she whistled and screeched in ways that messed with our senses. What was that we just heard?

Someone outside screaming? The high-pitched string band notes we had heard earlier on the radio? No, the radio was off and people had taken shelter. It was Pam in her many voices. She spoke a language of essential fear at its most primitive and we understood it instantly.

I could also ‘see’ what more than 200km per hour looked like. It was dark, the lights went out, it had that wobbly candle lit orange to it (not the romantic one you may be used to). It had pictures in my head of houses falling apart, metal sheets ripping of roofs, yachts in the bay turned upside down, trees tearing themselves into shreds, people cowering in dark corners and animals confused and wild. I could see 200km per hour in our eyes where we reflected the fear we were feeling so transparently despite our attempts to do the “I’m cool, you cool” act.

And of course we could feel it too. Pam’s special brand of 200km per hour or more shook us to the core. Our sturdy home rattled a bit at first and then at Pam’s most powerful moments she shook it. Just to remind us that she was in charge. Just to add to that already sharp edge that had moved us to huddle on the floor closest to the strongest walls and as far as possible from windows and doors that felt like they may not hold.

We could feel it too in another way. In wondering about family far away, in thinking about friends close by and those less fortunate to have a sturdy home, and in trying to reconcile this ugly yet astounding moment with the beautiful and gentle Vanuatu we love so much. And then after dragging us around with such aggression she decided to move on, to try her power games on anther small island of Vanuatu, and then another and another.

And at the end of this ‘dark and stormy night’ we were left wide awake, unable to sleep a wink in case she came back, wondering if what we saw in our mind’s eye, what we felt and heard, would be real when we eventually cracked open the doors after the all clear in the morning.

And it was.

Colin Collett van Rooyen, Country Director, Oxfam in Vanuatu. Follow Colin on Twitter here.

You can help support Oxfam’s Cyclone Pam response by donating here.

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