Many Yemenis have described the much-lauded UN medical air bridge as little more than a public relations stunt aimed at improving Saudi Arabia’s image in the world.
AbdulKhaliq Abbas was overjoyed when he heard the much-hyped news that the Saudi-led coalition was finally going to allow humanitarian flights to take off from Yemen’s Sana’a Airport. Finally, he hoped, his five-year-old daughter Rua’a could travel aboard a long-promised UN flight to get medical care abroad. Today, Abbas is back to square one, frustrated that the long-awaited flights have not proceeded as promised.
Last week, the United Nations announced that an air bridge would finally begin to evacuate Yemenis to Jorden for medical treatment following two years of negotiations between the Houthi government in Sana’a and Saudi-led Coalition. So far, Just two flights have taken place, the first on February 3 and the second on February 8. The UN promises that more operations will take place in the coming days, transporting patients to either Egypt or Jordan for specialized care.
Lise Grande, United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen described the move as a very important step “It’s a day of hope. It shows that everyone wants the people who need help to get that help,” Grande said, adding, “The key is to have many flights, bigger planes so that the people who need aid can get to the places where they will receive it.”
However, the humanitarian non-profit the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said that move comes too late. The NRC confirmed that thousands of Yemenis had been handed down a death sentence when the Saudi-led military coalition waging a war on Yemen closed down the Sana’a International Airport in 2016. “Today’s move comes too late for thousands of Yemenis who died waiting to leave the country for urgent life-saving care,” NRC’s Yemen Country Director, Mohammed Abdi said, adding, “Many more are still waiting to get the healthcare they need.”
Director-General of Sana’a International Airport, Khalid al-Shaif said two flights that have taken place were not part of a medical air bridge but were cherry-picked cases that flew out on the UN special envoy’s own plane. “In fact, there is no air bridge in the country as the United Nations and coalitions countries claim. Just cases evacuated by the special envoy’s plane. There are no medical aircraft that have taken off or landed at Sana’a airport so far. Patients have also not been scheduled [for flights] by the United Nations,” al-Shaif said.
Every day, the blockade on Sana’a International Airport, imposed by the Saudi-led coalition and supported by the United States, has killed dozens of times as many people as the much-hyped coronavirus. In 2016, the Coalition — which controls all Yemeni airspace — began allowing only UN-chartered planes to take off from the facility. The blockade has prevented thousands of sick Yemenis from leaving the country for medical urgent care and stopped medicine and equipment from getting in. This on top of the fact that the Coalition, supported by the United States, has severely damaged health care systems in Yemen, disrupting people’s ability to treat both chronic and communicable diseases and leaving 19.7 million people in need of basic health care, according to the UN.
AbdulKhaliq’s daughter, Rua’a, has cirrhosis of the liver and needs to be evacuated according to her doctor. Along with 6,000 other Yemeni children, Rua’a’s condition cannot be treated in Yemen and her doctor says she needs treatment abroad as soon as possible.”Doctors here don’t have the capabilities to treat her. Her health became worse and worse,” Rua’a’s father told us with frustration as his voice breaks mid-sentence. “We do not know when we’ll get a chance to get onto a UN flight.”
Ten days after the UN first announced the “medical air bridge,” which was supposed to be a rare glimpse of hope in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, flights have not proceeded as planned causing patients and their families to lose their last hope of keeping their loved ones alive. On the first civilian flight, only seven children were evacuated to Jordan to treatment on the special envoy’s plane, a diplomatic aircraft with no medical equipment available inside. Only 25 of the tens of thousands of critically ill Yemenis that need medical treatment abroad have reached Jordan as of Friday, February 8.
According to the Medical Committee which coordinates with the UN to evacuate the most urgent cases, the flights were scheduled to start on the third of February for 30 patients along with their loved ones as agreed, but recent changes have distributed this number across four trips.
“The first fight was scheduled to start on the third of February, for 30 patients with their companions as agreed, but the changes distributed this number on four trips,” the Ministry of Public Health in Sana’a said in a statement. “This to contrary to the requirements for medical evacuations and the Ministry was surprised by the World Health Organization speech that included changes in medical bridge arrangements and patient transfer mechanisms.”
Too little, too late
At the sprawling Khozeimah Cemetery in Sana’a, a 10-years old read Quran on his young mother’s grave and then places fresh flowers on the dull, gray stone. His mother had kidney failure and needed a kidney transplant abroad. On Wednesday, she died, just one week after the second UN flight to Jordan. For two years, she had been waiting for a UN flight.
The UN’s air bridge led to growing disappointment among Yemeni patients. Many Yemeni described it as little more than a public relations move aimed at improving Saudi Arabia’s image in the world. If it proceeds at its current rate, transferring 28 patients a month, it would take 15 years to evacuate all 32,000 patients currently in urgent need of medical treatment abroad.
According to a health official in Sana’a, at least 250 patients have died since February 3, when the first air bridge flight took place. Moreover, the number of patients who need to evacuate abroad has rapidly increased, meaning the gesture is little more than that, and cannot hope to address the deteriorating health situation in the country, according to Yemen’s medical officials.
Frustrated patients, activists and doctors describe the air bridge, accompanied by all of its media hype, as a big lie that has no purpose other than to exacerbate the suffering of patients who travel from far-flung districts and die waiting for a chance to board one of the UN flights.
Since 2015, when the war began, more than 220,000 medical patients had been prevented from traveling abroad for treatment due to Saudi Arabia’s closure of the Sana’a airport. Now, at least 300,000 are suffering from conditions that cannot be treated inside the war-battered Arab country, and need to evacuate abroad to save-life try.
Feature photo | A Yemeni man holds his passport as he waits in the departure lounge at Sana’a International airport, Yemen, Feb. 3, 2020, for a United Nations medical relief flight carrying patients from Yemen to Jordan. Hani Mohammed | AP
Ahmed AbdulKareem is a Yemeni journalist. He covers the war in Yemen for MintPress News as well as local Yemeni media.