Finding refuge|survival struggle|new clinic
On May 6th, International Medical Corps Health Programme Officer Doa’a Kutbi Omer was forced to flee her home in Aden together with her husband and young baby after her neighbourhood came under attack.
Finding refuge with relatives in another part of the city, she resumed her humanitarian work with International Medical Corps, helping establish a new health care clinic to serve the thousands of displaced people who have crowded into the area in hopes of escaping the fighting.
Editor’s note: Following the intense fighting that gripped Aden during much of the spring and early summer, a brief calm returned to the city in late July as the major fighting moved north-west to Taiz. In the months since, fuel and food shortages have eased, however sporadic and unpredictable violence involving a variety of militant groups have left parts of the city nervous and on edge. After being forced to flee their home in early May and live as IDPs (internally displaced persons) elsewhere in the city for three months, Doa’a, her husband and young baby were able to return to their apartment in the city’s Touwahi neighbourhood. Doa’a and other members of the International Medical Corps team in Aden have also been able to return to the International Medical Corps office in Aden, located in an area that had witnessed some of the city’s heaviest fighting.
December 17, 2015
Last week, the governor of Aden was assassinated. He cared about health and education in Yemen, so it’s frustrating for those of us who work so hard to deliver a high level of health care. I realise that life has to continue, but it was a shock, especially since he was killed in our own neighbourhood of Touwahi. It was a large blast and the whole city heard the explosion. Rumours fly that terrorists carried out the attack. We’ll likely never know.
What saddens me more is that Touwahi is no longer a secure place.
Yesterday, our neighbour who lives only 70 meters away from me and my family was also killed. Masked gunmen entered his home and killed him. He was a bit over 50 years of age. I was in the office when I heard the news and immediately called home to make sure my family was all okay. My mother reassured me that they were fine and my dad was walking with my son in the neighbourhood, but I was so scared that I asked my mother not to take my son out any more.
I am seriously thinking of moving to a safer place but I have a problem with such a decision: How can I leave my neighbour and my people and settle somewhere else? In addition to that, there’s important work here--training staff members at a local centre on the management of severe malnutrition. We are providing skills that can save lives.
Still, I’m unsure what to do. Most of my colleagues and friends are leaving the country. But I keep asking myself, “Why should I leave my country to these terrorists. If we all leave, they will control it.” I love my country and my people. I want to serve and help them as much as I can. Even though I have this attachment, I am still confronted with an inner struggle: to stay and help others means it’s harder to keep my son safe. I am lucky to be part of a great humanitarian organisation that is supporting people in need. This keeps me going.
One of the health problems facing the Touwahi area is a spike in dengue fever and malaria. We have coordinated with the local health department and launched a campaign that includes spraying in the area and conducting awareness sessions for residents. We have also trained 60 health staff members in how to prevent these diseases using World Health Organization protocols.
November 18, 2015
Aden is relatively safe now even though we hear of killings and assassinations by unknown assailants. Despite the fragile security situation, our work continues. In fact, we are quite busy. We are currently implementing vaccination programs covering all of Aden and Lahj Governorates and working with different health departments, conducting awareness sessions about child nutrition and disease prevention.
We are also preparing a major campaign due to start in early December to provide medical equipment to Sadaka Hospital in Aden. We used to support the hospital in emergency medicine during the war but now we will switch to emergency obstetric care. We are also going to support the hospital financially because staff members have not been paid for several months. We hope this will create an incentive for the staff to stay. It is very difficult when a nurse or a doctor doesn’t have the means to support their family. No one can work for nothing, so we hope this measure will help retain them. Another incentive is the training that we offer to the hospital staff.
Personally, it has been very hectic at work and I’ve been having nightmares about the war. I recently went back to Inma, the area of Aden where we took refuge last May after being forced to flee our home during the fighting. It was tough going back. I remembered those very hard days and Syrians and Palestinians came to mind. I really hope they can soon return to their homes. No one—no matter who they are—deserves to go through the terrible experience of losing their home and being displaced.
My son Sam turned two recently and to cheer us up, I decided we should celebrate, so I organised a birthday party and invited a number of children. It was clearly a success. We have to live despite the hardship. I just wish a better future for my son. I wish him safety and happiness. We have to build the future for our children.
October 30, 2015
Yesterday I conducted training in emergency first aid in the Maqatra District (in Aden’s neighbouring governorate of Lahj) for 16 participants from Lahj City. It has been difficult for us to reach these trainees because we haven’t been able to get to Lahj City due to the security situation there, so we asked them all to come to Maqatra which is a relatively safer place. Prior to this, we conducted identical training sessions for 21 people in Al-Milah (another district in Lahj Governorate) and for 45 in Aden.
In Aden, my colleagues also trained 26 intensive care unit staff members in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation – which is also part of the emergency training curriculum.
During my visit to Maqatra, we realised there has been a sharp fall in the level of immunisations. Making things worse, most medical centres in the area now have a shortage of vaccines. I called team members from the World Health Organization and asked for a meeting to discuss the issue. They agreed and I really hope we will find ways to end the current shortage quickly and also work out a plan to cover basic immunisation needs for the longer term.
While in Maqatra, I also visited Al Istiqrar Medical Centre where I saw many cases of malnutrition and conjunctivitis. I organised awareness sessions for both doctors and families.
Maqatra is a large, mainly rural, district with many isolated villages. At the medical centre I met a mother with her two children who arrived around noon after walking seven hours from their village. Both children had conjunctivitis. The mother told me there were many cases of Leishmaniasis in the village because animals live inside homes together with the families. Next month, we plan to launch a campaign against this illness. (Leishmaniasis is a parasitic disease spread by the bite of infected sand flies that can cause large, painful and disfiguring body sores.) The disease spreads mainly during this time of the year so we time our awareness campaigns for November and use sprays to get rid of the disease.
I was struck by the stories I hear about people in the village who try to get rid of the disease by rubbing certain kinds of plant leaves on the children. This is a traditional method to deal with a disease, but the problem is that the plants don’t cure the disease and can cause burns. I saw one girl who had burns inside her mouth after being treated with such a plant. We’ll target this area in our awareness campaign in the hope we can stop this “traditional medicine” that seems to cause more harm than good.
October 12, 2015
This morning, we were wakened by the sounds of three large explosions. We were told the target was a main government building in the city. It is situated in Inma, the zone where we found refuge during the battle for Aden, because it was one of the safest places to be. Friends who live there told me the blasts shattered their windows. Even though we were a long way away, it was still very frightening.
Before this morning’s explosions, it felt as if Aden had become more peaceful. We no longer heard explosions and the focus of our work was on reaching as many neighbourhoods and communities as possible, especially those most affected during the heavy fighting that took place in the battle for control of the city. I’ve been working such long hours that I don’t get to see my family as much as before. Thankfully, the Eid holiday was an excellent opportunity for a family gathering.
On the ground, we are witnessing a kind of “Marshall Plan” as reconstruction has started and new concrete buildings begins to take shape. Many buildings – especially health and education ones – are being rehabilitated or entirely rebuilt. Schools that were destroyed during the fighting have all been wonderfully rebuilt. Our children start the new academic year today in a fabulous school room decorated to help them overcome the fears that have accumulated during the months of horror.
Hospitals now all have electrical generators. International Medical Corps now supports much of the primary health care in Aden and we distributed medical supplies and other equipment to many health centres. We are also currently training doctors and medical teams on how to report about their work and their needs to the Ministry of Health so those working at the ministry can accurately keep track of the situation here. In Aden we have also trained medical personnel on nutrition awareness and community management of acute malnutrition. During the last two weeks, we have trained around 52 hospital staff members. We have also fixed refrigerators in accordance with international standards.
Last week, we organised a carnival to focus on breastfeeding awareness. During the ceremony, our volunteers presented a play created for illiterate women to highlight the importance of nutrition, breastfeeding, handwashing and how to avoid conjunctivitis, which has spread widely here in the last few months.
August 26, 2015
EDITOR'S NOTE: Following the intense fighting that gripped Aden during much of the spring and early summer, a relative calm returned to the city in the last days of July as the major fighting moved northwest to Taiz. After being forced to flee their home in early May and live as IDPs (internally displaced persons) elsewhere in the city for three months, Doa’a, her husband and young baby are about to return to their apartment in the city’s Touwahi neighbourhood. At the same time, Doa’a and other members of the International Medical Corps team in Aden have also been able to return to their former office, located in an area that witnessed some of the city’s heaviest fighting.
The pressure I feel right now is extreme. I work day and night, even from home at night. The war has changed Aden. It’s like we all were in a coma and then suddenly woke up. We haven’t moved back to our old neighbourhood of Touwahi yet because there is no electricity but we are hoping to return tomorrow.
The owner of the place where we’ve been living now for months since we first fled the fighting needs to rent the apartment so we are under pressure to go. The news from Touwahi is sketchy and the truth is we don’t know what’s really happening there. We hear bombing but we don’t know where it is coming from. There are rumours about new invaders but we don’t know if this is true or not. The last time I was there I felt Touwahi had become a sad place. People are scared. This is not so in other areas. People constantly hear the sounds of fighting—explosions and small arms fire—but they don’t know who is involved or for what cause.
We don’t watch the news on TV anymore because it just makes us more frightened. We see enough horror in our daily lives. Why should we watch more on TV? Two days ago, for example, a man on his motorcycle was killed in Touwahi. He was on his motorcycle close to a coffee shop. He wasn’t a politician. Just a simple cook. No one knows who shot him or why, only that he was killed in cold blood. When the war was raging in Aden we were constantly scared. Now we live in a time of uncertainty, a time of the unknown. I will go back to Touwahi, but I don’t know what awaits me there.
August 5, 2015
This is our second week back in the office. Thankfully, we found it unaffected by the fighting. I am truly relieved. My dream of returning to my home and my old office has come true! My family and all my colleagues are safe. My family and I will move back into our home in Touwahi today (August 6th). We are waiting now for electricity and running water to be restored.
At work, we are currently working on a reassessment of the damage that occurred during the fighting and what it means for those we are assisting. We did an initial assessment earlier but now we are evaluating the most urgent needs of the people and the local health organisations we work with. It’s a major challenge because we are now supporting 38 medical centres, four mobile clinics and two hospitals in Aden and Lahij alone. The reassessment also includes training needs for medical staff members. The sad reality is that bombing has ceased but the humanitarian crisis is unprecedented. We are especially worried about child malnutrition which has been on the rise since the war started.
July 15, 2015
Street fighting has intensified over the last few days in and around Aden, with many killed or wounded. I was at the hospital last Monday, working to help save the wounded. Today, the city is under siege. Our head of security has advised us to stay inside and not to leave our homes.
I met with another NGO representative who asked us to help them with training in hygiene promotion. We will start this training soon for IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). Our health workers, who have already been trained in this field, will visit IDPs to demonstrate the importance of good hygiene practices, in particular washing hands with soap after going to the toilet and before eating and preparing food.
As the bombing campaign continues, groups of locally-based fighters have moved back into some areas of Aden, including Khour Maksar where International Medical Corps’ office is located. This development has left the majority of the people here hoping they might be able to return to their original homes in time for the Eid holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. I have a strong feeling we will be able to work from the office after Eid.
My old neighbourhood of Touwahi remains completely sealed off. I tried again to go back but was denied access. I was told by former neighbours who had just left that it is like a ghost town. People are not allowed to move even inside the neighbourhood and it is forbidden to turn lights on. I don’t know if my house is now occupied by someone else or what shape it is in. I only know that heavy fighting continues there, that the Hospital in Touwahi is now a military area and that there are no public services there—no health care, no electricity and no water.
As for the Eid preparation, we want our kids to feel the joy of the holiday. I bought new clothes to my little boy and we are preparing special sweets for the occasion. In my role as a volunteer at the Save Aden Campaign, we collected gifts and Eid donations from wealthy Yemenis from around the world. We are doing this even during Ramadan, so where the IDPs have gathered, there have huge Iftar meals for the families when they break their fast. Because supplies of cooking gas have run out, we have switched to using an electric stove. Still, both electricity and water remain scarce.
Thanks God we have this strong social and community support.
July 7, 2015
Ten days ago, we moved to another apartment in the same neighbourhood – Inmaa. We needed more space. We are now 12 people in a three-bedroom apartment. I am with my husband and baby, my parents, my two siblings and two of my friends and their children. It has been very hectic because this is the second time we have moved in just six weeks. I cannot describe my feelings being displaced but at least we have a place to live.
The holy month of Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting, started terribly. On the first day, people everywhere were crying because we thought the war would end and we might be back to our homes to celebrate Ramadan. Instead, we continue to experience the shock of displacement and the trauma of bombing. Our neighbourhood was bombed during the first days of Ramadan. A woman and her three boys were killed. In many IDP settlements, rockets were fired. In Al Mansour, one mile away, 34 people were killed when 12 rockets were launched at them. It’s hard to remember this used to be the safest neighbourhood in Aden!
We still have electricity on and off but only for three hours at a time. One of the ships carrying International Medical Corps medical supplies and kits was attacked when it approached the port of Aden, so we were unable to get them—even though they are so badly needed. Because the bombing targeted oil storage tanks, Aden’s sky was black for 10 days. It could have been an environmental catastrophe.
Al Sadaqa hospital has not been operating for weeks now because it is located in the middle of the fighting. Still, we are trying to reopen it. It is not easy because staff members have not had their salaries for four months now. We are trying to locate and repair equipment inside the hospital that was damaged during the air strikes. While working on these kinds of emergencies, we are also trying to keep going with our routine work of supporting those families and individuals displaced with urgently needed supplies. We are also continuing our women and children health programme. In my neighbourhood I helped a woman give birth, accompanying her to a hospital so she could receive a Caesarean-section. Because of the war, women giving birth cannot reach the few functioning hospitals. Checkpoints are still everywhere and the lives of these women and their babies are in danger.
I am also working with several NGOs in the fight to contain malaria that is spreading across Aden. The mood is dark. People are depressed and angry. The Geneva talks yielded no tangible results. What is happening here is not fair. Still, despite the difficult living conditions and limited resources, we try to serve the traditional dishes for the evening meal that breaks the day-long fasts of the holy month. We hope for a better Ramadan at home next year.
May 27, 2015
Our location is the safest in Aden. Still, we constantly hear bombing—a reminder that a humanitarian catastrophe is taking place. I was planning to return to my neighbourhood with my husband and child but it is dangerous and there is no electricity or water there now. I wanted to go back to help my neighbours and assist the doctors at the hospital close to where we lived. I’ve heard many people were killed and bodies of dead people are scattered in the streets and that illness is spreading, especially malaria.
The Kreiter municipality is the most severely affected area of Aden. It is completely sealed off from the rest of the city and residents are drinking well water. Malaria is spreading. I contacted the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization asking if they could intervene immediately. I am now gathering more information about the health situation and will soon have a complete report. I am coordinating daily with the Programme Director at the Ministry of Health and we are working on a campaign to save the residents of Kreiter. The Programme Director of the Ministry of Health expressed his gratitude for our efforts. He even wanted to send International Medical Corps a letter of appreciation. I thanked him and asked him to do it when the war ends. Now is the time to focus on assisting my people. I am in contact with Kreiter residents by phone to get as much data as possible and am also meeting with those who managed to flee the area. According to these people, residents are living between garbage and sewage. Six of my family members have malaria. They are now being treated at hospital.
What are my days like? Since our displacement to Imaa (the Mugammaa Inma al Sakani area of the city), my life has turned upside down. In this neighbourhood, we have electricity for just 12 hours a day. That makes it very hard, especially because of the heat. Temperatures reach 108 degrees. When power comes back, the first thing I do is turn on the washing machine to wash our clothes.
Every day, I wake up at 6 am. I prepare breakfast and help my mother who still cannot walk because of a surgery she had in her leg. I make sure she takes her medicines. Living is crowded at my uncle’s home. We are now 22 persons in a temporary 4-bedroom apartment. In addition to my family members (parents, uncle, aunt and their children), I invited 2 women friends—both divorced—with their children to move in with us. In our culture, it is not easy for a divorced single mother to live alone and the war makes things even more difficult for them.
In the morning, men queue for hours to get bread. Prices are crazy. We need to pay 1 USD per person. Not everyone can. I know people who buy a small piece of bread, then share it among 3 individuals. Yesterday, there was no bread at all so I had to make it at home. After breakfast, I leave my son with my sister and run to our warehouse to meet with our International Medical Corps team: nutrition, health, sanitation, security, finance and logistics specialists. Our finance staff member can no longer do his work because there are no banks open so he now helps with other administrative and humanitarian tasks.
We meet as an emergency team, not as a department. During the meeting, we agree on what each of us needs to do before the day ends. Because of the hot weather, we continue our work from home at 3 pm. We continue to deliver hygiene and food security kits to those new arrivals displaced by the fighting. We can reach them easily because they are now in relatively calm areas. We are also distributing food vouchers to every family. After work, I help out at home and chat with my cousins and friends. We don’t have internet which leaves us starved of information. The other day, I walked for almost one mile to an internet café, only to find out that they had no connection either.
Every night, before going to sleep I cry. It is not easy. The holy month of Ramadan is approaching and conditions at home will make it impossible to fast and celebrate in the evening as we always have in the past. I hope no one ever experiences displacement. One piece of good news though: my friends –the local humanitarians I was so worried about--were finally freed by their kidnappers. They were tortured and had to share the one meal they were given each day among the five of them. Thanks God their nightmare ended and they are back with their families.
Thoughts for the future
We are luckier than many others. With the hot weather and because electricity is rare, we can open the windows. Some of my friends cannot risk doing that because of snipers in their areas.
I feel sad and angry for my country. We used to live in harmony, regardless of religious affiliation. No longer. Now, we are frightened about the future.
What do I wish for? I wish for the day I can tell you: “We are back home and the war is over.”
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