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Mourning lost children: Stories from Yemen

My name is Claire Nicoll and I work for the Humanitarian Operations Team at Save the Children. This summer, I lived and worked in Yemen. During my time there, I met many children, mothers and fathers whose stories stuck with me. Here is one of them. 

Hajjah, Yemen – 23rd August

I’ve spoken to so many mothers mourning their lost children, that their stories have become a sad hallmark of my time in Yemen.

Today I met Amal, whose three-year-old son, Ahmed, died of tonsillitis because the local health facility had run out of basic antibiotics. She spent a week’s worth of money on the bus fare to the hospital, and while she was trying to scrape together the money to go to a different health facility, Ahmed died.

Amal said that she feels angry at her son’s fate and cheated out of the future he should have had.“I had to watch my child die in front of my eyes and there was nothing I could do. He deserved a future.”

I’ve lost count of the number of similar stories I’ve heard, where parents can’t take their sick children to hospital in time because the transport costs are just too high.

In the car on the way back from the health facility where I met Amal, I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that Save the Children runs more than a hundred health facilities across the country. As much as we can, we try to be there with free healthcare to families who desperately need it. We also pay transport costs to help families reach hospitals in time. For many families, it’s literally a matter of life and death.

But I can’t stop thinking about the children who aren’t so lucky, like Ahmed who died at home, in pain and from entirely preventable causes. Amal did everything she possibly could to save her son, but there were just too many obstacles stacked against her.

She said the only thing she could do for her son was hold him in his final moments.

A crippled health system

Ahmed is not an isolated case, and even those who do make it to public hospitals can be told on arrival that they have to pay for medicines and treatment, or even bring their own. This isn’t possible for many families and they leave empty handed, forced to take their children home – often to die.

Half of all health facilities in Yemen are closed, and those that are still open lack vital life-saving medicines, specialist staff, even electricity. I saw pharmacies with near-empty shelves, staffed by exhausted doctors who said they simply don’t have the medicines they need to keep children alive any more:

“How can we treat a missing limb with a plaster?”

In many health centres incubators for premature and malnourished babies are missing essential parts – so staff are forced to make-do with whatever they can find, like plastic sheeting to help cover the incubator and prevent babies from being infected by germs

Al-Sabeen health facility in Sana'a, the capital city of Yemen, is supported by Save the Children
Al-Sabeen health facility in Sana’a is supported by Save the Children. Despite support, the hospital is under-resourced, and staff have had to turn sick babies and children away as there is not enough room.

Health Facility under attack

Many hospitals are out of action because they’ve been destroyed in the fighting or are occupied by fighters.

In early August, the entrance to Al Thawrah hospital in Hodeidah, which is supported by Save the Children, was attacked. It’s the main public hospital in Hodeidah, serving over half a million people every month who are struggling to survive in one of the worst-affected parts of Yemen.

The attack killed more than 40 people, including many children. Colleagues who witnessed the incident described seeing people running frantically and bodies lining the street.

One woman told us that her son’s body had been returned to her in a cardboard box after he was killed by an airstrike at the local market. She only recognised him by the cartoon on his small red t-shirt.

So why am I still here? Why do we all keep working day and night, when it can feel like all we do is put plasters on gaping wounds? It is because children like Ahmed could have been saved, and parents like Amal could be spared unimaginable heartbreak. And even though many more will die as long as the conflict grinds on, one child’s life alone is worth all of our time.

At the time of writing, Save the Children has reached more than 2.5 million children with support. 

Donate to help support our vital work in Yemen today.

Read Claire’s previous blog here. 

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