- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 20, 2009

TAIZ, Yemen

“This is the first food I’ve eaten in four days,” Habiba Mohammad Hassan, a 17-year-old Somali girl says while opening a packet of high-energy cookies from the U.N. World Food Program (WFP).

Habiba, and 150 other refugees, just spent three days crossing the hazardous Gulf of Aden, fleeing the conflict in Somalia and arriving on the beach of Bab al Mandeb, a small port village in the extreme west of Yemen.

Refugees who make it to land receive automatic political asylum, but survivors sometimes report being forced overboard in deep waters far off shore by traffickers.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has buried more than 500 bodies recovered on the beaches around al Mandeb.

In route from the landing spot in Bab al Mandeb, to the UNHCR camp Al Kharaz camp two hours away, Habiba sits wedged in the back of a truck with 40 others.

Arriving at the camp, she waits in line under a corrugated metal structure to receive food ration cards that will provide up to five days of cooked meals from the WFP.

“When they came into my house and cut out my sister’s eyes and then cut off her head … when I saw this, I could no longer stay,” Habiba says.

Though safe for now, she and other refugees are unlikely to settle in Yemen, which can barely feed its own people. Yemen’s increasing dependence on external food supplies has been exacerbated by climate change and massive population growth. Rising global food prices have further compounded the crisis.

Like most Yemeni households, Hayeem Ya’esh, 66, is cutting back on other expenses to ensure that his family has their minimum requirements. “I now spend almost 100 percent of my income on food.”

Next week, WFP in Yemen is launching a program to offset the high prices of food staples, which is hitting millions of food-insecure Yemenis like Mr. Ya’esh.

“The food from the U.N. cannot come at a better time,” Mr. Ya’esh says as he waits to get registered with the WFP. “My income has never increased, but the cost of food has.”

The budget for the operation is $30 million and is set to target 700,000 people in eight of Yemen’s 21 government districts. The focus of the operation will be on children ages 2 to 5, and pregnant woman.

“These are the categories of people considered most affected by the food price hikes,” said Saeed Marwan, a WFP representative.

Yemen’s food problems stem from multiple sources going back many years. During the first Gulf War in 1991, Yemen supported Iraq politically, but not militarily.

In retaliation, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait expelled as many as 1 million Yemenis. The Yemenis and their families relied heavily on remittances. As a result, unemployment skyrocketed and inflation has run rampant ever since.

Recently, rebel activity and border conflicts with Saudi Arabia have prevented Yemen from developing oil reserves in the north.

Yemen’s oil-refining industry relied on crude from Iraq and Kuwait, which dried up during the war, and the U.S. has slashed its economic aid.

Arriving at the village of Dobaba, one sees families in the middle of an unforgiving landscape attempting to scrape by. They deal not only with food scarcity but also struggle to find water.

Yemenis consume more water than its aquifers can supply. Some fear the Western part of the country will run out of water in its aquifer in 10 years.

Drilling in this region requires going to the expensive depth of more than a half mile, compared with less than 150 feet just 25 years ago.

Nothing about this village is sustainable and yet they cannot afford to travel to Taiz, let alone afford to live in such a city. Furthermore, their dependency and skill sets revolve around the sea.

Unable to wait for the food operation to arrive to Dobaba, fishermen like Abdalla Abrahem must venture deeper into the volatile seas to find enough fish to support his family.

The new arrivals will have to decide whether they want to make their new life here in the camp or risk traveling illegally to the surrounding gulf nations for a better opportunity to work.

Sitting on a thin mattress inside a UNHCR tent, Ramah Ismail, 31, says: “Even though it is safe here [in Yemen], this is no existence. There is no work, no water, and it’s impossible to grow anything here.”

She continues: “This is my second time coming to Yemen. Six months ago, I came to Yemen and then traveled to Jidda [Saudi Arabia] to find work. I was arrested and sent back to Somalia.”

Ms. Ismail, who arrived in Yemen six days earlier, just used her last food ration card and plans another attempt to settle in Jidda, leaving for the Saudi city the next day.

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