SANA’A, YEMEN — Laying inside an incubator with a ventilator in the critical-care unit at al Thwarah Hospital in Yemen’s capital Sana’a, two-week-old Abd al-Khaleq, and Abd al-Rahim Akram Ali Ahmed, conjoined twins, died on Saturday as their parents, doctors, and local officials looked on helplessly. The twins died after being prevented by Saudi Arabia from leaving Yemen for life-saving medical care abroad.
“The newborn conjoined twins shared one body with two heads, two hearts, two lungs, two stomachs, and two backbones and had only one genetelia, two hands and two legs,” Abdullatif Abu Taleb, chairman of the Revolution Hospital said. ”We could not meet the [medical] needs of the boys; our resources are limited and we do not have the right equipment. They needed to go abroad.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Health, Dr. Yussif al Hadhri, told MintPress News that Yemen’s hospitals lacked the facilities to treat or separate the newborn boys and appealed on Wednesday for help from abroad, blaming Saudi Arabia for the deaths after the Saudis refused to allow the boys to travel abroad from the Sana’a International Airport, which has been shut down by Saudi decree for years.
On February 3, the boys’ family, as well as their doctors, appealed to Saudi coalition officials and international groups to allow the evacuation of the conjoined twins so they could receive urgent medical treatment, but the appeal was denied. “We appealed to the coalition and international groups to bring in a private plane to evacuate the conjoined twins but no one responded,” Faisal Al-Babli, head of the Children’s Department of the State Hospital said. “They died after a week of suffering.”
Akram, the father of the twin boys, was unable to travel by road through areas like Marib and Lahjj, as fierce fighting between Yemen’s army and the Saudi-led coalition is taking place. Reaching Aden’s airport or Seiyun, 600 kilometers east of Sana’a, would mean driving for nearly 20 hours with the boys, who were need of constant medical care. The trip costs around $100 and Akram, who cannot afford the trip, knew his sons would be unable to survive the journey by car.
On Wednesday, Saudi officials claimed that the King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Works was looking into how to get the boys abroad for treatment according to Saudi state news agency SPA. “Getting out of their mother’s womb as conjoined twins was easier than getting them out of Yemen,” the boys’ grandfather said, “thanks to Saudi Arabia.”
Abd al-Khaleq and Abd al-Rahim are among over 30,000 people that died from critical health conditions since the Sana’a Airport was closed, according to the Ministry of Health. While over 200,000 people who are still seeking life-saving treatment abroad may face the same fate. However, international aid and human-rights groups seem to be unconcerned. “No one cares,” as health officials in Yemen put it.
In addition to the thousands of wounded and disabled, Yemenis are confined to an environment infested with outbreaks of all kinds of diseases thanks to a crumbling medical infrastructure. Outbreaks of diphtheria, measles and swine flu have now emerged in a nation caught between a crippling Saudi blockade and aid organizations that are unwilling or unable to meet the growing needs of the war-torn country.
Just one tragic example of a catastrophic situation
News of twin boys’ death as a result of the coalition blockade mirrors the health and humanitarian nightmare most of Yemen’s children are living through as a result of the war. It’s also a stark reminder of conditions in hospitals across many of Yemen’s provinces, especially in areas of northern Yemen.
Yemen’s Health Ministry has reported that the coalition blockade of the Sana’a Airport has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of children as a result of their inability to travel abroad for treatment not available in Yemen. The coalition forced the closure of the airport in August 2016, effectively choking off Yemen’s supply of life-saving medicine.
The collapse of health services in Yemen as a result of Saudi attacks is acute and can be seen across the country. Hospitals are poorly equipped to deal with routine treatment for common ailments and no longer able to provide treatment for even the most basic of health concerns like cholera or influenza, let alone rare conditions. Hospital entrances are now overrun with large numbers of patients gathering at their gates in desperate need of medical care.
Yet this tragic situation did not come as a result of failed domestic policies or a natural disaster. The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition has repeatedly, systematically and deliberately attacked health facilities in Yemen since it began its military campaign against the country in 2015. According to the Legal Center for Rights and Development, an organization that tracks Saudi violations of international law in Yemen, 318 hospitals and health centers have been destroyed since 2015, while the hospitals that have not been destroyed barely function, doctors have not been paid, and power outages are frequent.
Blocking all routes to health
Before the war began, thousands of Yemenis regularly traveled abroad — mostly through the Sana’a International Airport — for medical treatment each year; 60 percent of the patients were women and children. Saudi Arabia’s ongoing blockade of Yemen includes medical supplies and means that the number of patients requiring life-saving overseas treatment will grow, while a ruinous blockade of Yemen’s ports, including the blockade on the Sana’a International Airport, means that depleted supplies of life-saving medicine cannot be restocked.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 7,000 Yemenis traveled from the Sana’a Airport alone to access medical treatment abroad each year, yet for the past 24 months that number has skyrocketed to an estimated 20,000.
The Ministry of Health said that about 7,000 patients with renal failure needed kidney transplants abroad and 32,000 patients needed treatment for cancer. Furthermore, statistics show that 54 classes of medicine needed to treat cancerous tumors, 68 types of general medicines and surgical operations, 31 types of rehabilitation medicines and anesthesia, 60 categories of medicines needed to treat chronic conditions, and 65 classes of laboratory solutions and tissue assays and other important items were able to be transported only through the now-blockaded Sana’a Airport, as it was equipped to handle the sensitive shipments.
Local health officials report that the closure of the Sana’a International Airport has led to a high rate of disabilities in Yemen, as those injured by Saudi coalition airstrikes, estimated to be about two thousand patients, are unable to seek medical care abroad. Officials say that many of those patients would likely survive if they were able to receive specialized care abroad.
Censoring an ugly story
Reopening the Sana’a International Airport was a key issue on the agenda at the United Nations-led peace talks on Yemen that began in Stockholm, Sweden in December of last year. But hope is waning that an agreement will be reached, likely resulting in the deaths of thousands of patients, as the recent case of the Ali Ahmed twins highlighted.
During the peace talks, representatives from the Houthis pushed for the reopening of the airport and even offered to allow any Yemeni planes flying through the airport to be inspected in Jordan or Egypt, but the Saudi coalition refused.
Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is still the world’s worst and, while has been some coverage of the crisis and aid from a select cadre of international aid groups, the plight of Yemenis has gone largely ignored thanks to the coalition blockade as well as an unwillingness by the media to challenge the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led Coalition. Yemeni activists have taken to social media in a bid to bring attention to the humanitarian crisis, but news on Yemen has faced stiff censorship on Facebook and Twitter thanks to lobbying and pressure by the Saudi government.
Yemeni activists recently launched a Twitter campaign under the hashtag #EndYemenSiege, hoping to break the international silence over the deepening crisis in Yemen.
The campaign calls on the international community to pressure Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade of the Sana’a International Airport. But the advocates routinely find their tweets deleted or the accounts banned altogether under the pretext of violating social-media standards.
Even independent media covering the war in Yemen have found their news coverage of the war in Yemen facing heavy censorship. Facebook has flagged several MintPress News articles covering the war. MintPress News articles are also often blocked by in Google News search results for Yemen, and Google advertising is consistently cut off on MintPress News articles covering the war, with the claim that the articles constitute ‘shocking content.’
When family members and friends of a five-year-old Yemeni boy suffering from cancer launched a social media campaign hoping to draw attention to his plight and calling for the Sana’a International Airport to be re-opened so he could get life-saving treatment abroad, many of them found their social media accounts suddenly deleted.
Food and medicine as weapons of war
To make matters worse, in addition to preventing essential supplies, including medicine, from entering Yemen, often when those supplies are able to reach the country the coalition has systematically and deliberately attacked the convoys carrying it.
On Saturday, a Saudi warplane carried out three airstrikes on a truck carrying food and supplies donated by the UN World Food Program in Yemen’s northern Sa’ada province as it was driving to the al-Agig district in northern Sa’ada. On January 28, in Hodeida, the Red Sea Silos, which house 51,000 metric tons of wheat — almost a quarter of the World Food Programme’s stock — was struck with mortar shells resulting in a fire that destroyed at least two of the silos.
Photos show the aftermath of Saudi Arabia’s attack on a truck carrying UN World Food Program aid. Credit | Ali al- Shorgbi
Saudi Arabia systematically targets Yemen’s food sources and stores as a tactic in its campaign against the country. Indeed, the UN’s World Food Programme has previously declared that food is being used as a weapon of war in Yemen.
Top Photo | Newly born conjoined twins lie in an incubator at the child intensive care unit of al-Thawra hospital in Sanaa, Yemen February 6, 2019. Doctors say separating the twins is not an applicable option in Yemen because they have two arms, two legs and one genitalia. Khaled Abdullah | Reuters
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.