Yemen’s medical air bridge offers rare glimpse of hope


Peals of laughter bounce off the bright yellow walls of an inflatable castle, and the click-clack of children playing air hockey pierces the air.

Thirteen-year old Raghad pushes the plastic puck with all the strength she can muster from her delicate frame. The hint of a smile peeks from her protective face mask.

“She’s always been the smartest girl in her class,” her father Abdullah proudly informs me as we sit in the garden of a Sanaa hotel where their family and dozens of others have waited months for a long-promised UN flight to get medical care abroad.

But there is something Raghad’s father does not want her to know: her body is now consumed by cancer.

“I keep this secret for her,” he says quietly. “If she knows, it would change everything for her.”

Yemen child in cancer hospital

Image captionThousands of Yemenis have died waiting to leave the country for urgent care

Raghad is on the short list of 30 patients set to fly out of Sanaa International Airport as part of this medical air bridge for civilians suffering from conditions that cannot be treated inside Yemen.

It is a small but significant crack in a more than three-year-long blockade of civilian flights by a Saudi-led coalition backing Yemen’s government in its war with the rebel Houthi movement.

If all goes as planned, a series of flights, carrying patients and their caregivers, will leave for Amman and Cairo this month.

“If Raghad stays in Yemen, both her legs would have to be amputated because doctors here aren’t able to treat her,” her father reveals, his voice breaking mid-sentence as he fights back tears. “For her, that would be worse than death.”

Yemenis walk through Sanaa's Old City (20 January 2020)

Sanaa has been controlled by the rebel Houthi movement since late 2014/EPA

“It’s a major breakthrough,” says Lise Grande, the UN’s resident humanitarian co-ordinator. “It’s taken two years of intensive discussions, asking the parties to agree on the modalities.”

“It shows that people really do care what happens to Yemenis, they care,” she explains when we meet in a heavily guarded UN compound in Sanaa, which is controlled by the Houthis.

It also shows how the littlest and most vulnerable are caught in the poisonous webs spun by a merciless war lurching towards its fifth year.

There are two other international airports in southern Yemen, controlled by the Yemeni government. But they are 15 to 20 hours away from Sanaa on rutted roads winding through mountain passes, threaded by checkpoints of rival fighters.

Houthi security forces guard a street leading to Sanaa International Airport in Sanaa, Yemen (31 January 2019)

The Saudi-led coalition decides what can fly into and out of Sanaa’s airport/GETTY IMAGES

Sanaa International airport is eerily empty.

Houthi leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi takes this stage, hoisting himself into the back of a pick-up bristling with AK-47 rifles to artfully seize the moment of a rare visit by a foreign news team.

“We brought you to this airport to show you it was targeted, and is now blocked,” he declares.

A World Food Programme plane taxis down the runway – only a handful of aid flights are cleared by the coalition, which controls Yemen’s air space.

The wreckage of a civilian aircraft, reportedly destroyed in 2016 by a Saudi air strike, is a sprawl of twisted metal sprawled across the edge of the tarmac.

Inside a deserted departures hall only stray cats pad across the gleaming floor. The upstairs lounge is covered in a layer of fine dust, more than three years thick.

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi

Image caption Mohammed Ali al-Houthi rejected a coalition proposal to route flights via Aden or Saudi Arabia

Over the past year, the coalition proposed a way out: divert flights via Bisha airport in south-western Saudi Arabia or Aden in southern Yemen to allow aircraft to be searched.

“This airport has its own security procedures, which means civilian aircraft cannot carry weapons,” asserts Mr Houthi. “There are satellites, and they have their own spies on the ground, so if there’s any movement in Sanaa airport, they can prove it with photos.”

The coalition proposal would downgrade Sanaa to a local airport. For the men in charge in Sanaa, sovereignty trumps everything, even human lives.

“We are sovereign and independent and won’t be a servant to anyone.” Mr Houthi adds with a flourish as he strides away to continue this warzone tour.

Saudi Arabia’s military spokesman, Col Turki al-Malki, has described the “Flights of Mercy” as a “humanitarian initiative”.

“It was also a political concession from the Saudis,” says a source involved in the lengthy deliberations. “Senior Saudi officials personally intervened to make this happen.”

Released Houthi prisoners arrive in Sanaa after being released by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen (28 November 2019)

The warring parties have released prisoners as a confidence-building measure/GETTY IMAGES

The medical air bridge was given the go-ahead as part of Saudi Arabia’s reported shift to de-escalate tensions. That has included holding secret talks with the Houthis, which have been shaken by an upsurge in fighting.

There has also been a frustrating search for countries willing to accept Yemeni patients. Expenses will be borne by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the charity International SOS, but there was worry about families overstaying their welcome.

All the while patients were kept waiting, their conditions getting worse. And the list of patients on a waiting list is said to number more than 30,000.

“When we called families this time to tell them there’d be flights in February, some hung up on us, or angrily informed us the patient had died,” a frustrated WHO official tells me as she clutches a bulging stack of medical files.

Dr Abdullah Thawaba, head of cancer hospital in Sanaa, Yemen

Abdullah Thawaba says it is very difficult to be a doctor in Sanaa

Even doctors at Yemen’s only cancer hospital lost hope there would ever be a flight. They stopped making lists of the most urgent cases.

“Many children are dying because they can’t travel abroad,” says Dr Abdullah Thawaba, director of the National Oncology Centre. “Every year we receive 700 children and some die because they can’t get treated abroad.”

At this hospital, even the carers need care.

“It’s very, very difficult to be a doctor here,” Dr Thawaba admits. “Sometimes we all feel really depressed because we can’t give our patients the treatment they need.”

Muthea, six-year-old cancer patient

Image captionMuthea cannot sleep at night because of his pain

Six-year-old Muthea wears a plastic spider man watch on his spindly arm, and there’s a tiny teddy bear on the striped woollen beanie shielding his bald head.

But there is nothing fun about his vacant stare.

Muthea’s father, perched on his son’s bed, also wears sadness like a heavy coat.

“Muthea has stomach cancer and can’t sleep at night because of his pain,” he says.

They’ve travelled the long road to Sanaa from a town near the embattled port city of Hudaydah on the Red Sea coast.

“It amounts to a death sentence,” says Sultana Begum of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has campaigned for years on this issue. “The use of a blockade has prevented thousands of sick Yemenis from leaving the country for urgent care, and stopped medicines and equipment from getting in.”

Awab sits beside his father's grave at a cemetery in Sanaa, Yemen

Image captionAwab says his father died while awaiting medical evacuation

At a sprawling Sanaa cemetery, 17-year-old Awab washes his father’s grave and places fresh flowers on the dull, grey stone.

“My father had cirrhosis of the liver for 13 years,” he says. “But then he couldn’t find the medicine and his condition got worse and worse.”

“For two years, they kept promising he would be on a UN flight,” he adds bitterly.

This medical air bridge is a glimpse of hope in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis – a hope so rare, many still fear it won’t proceed as planned.



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