“In Hodeidah, we ran a small clothes workshop – but my husband and I were forced to leave everything behind when we fled our home, and we can’t afford to start the business over again,” says Layla*
Words by Hannah Cooper, a roving Humanitarian Policy & Advocacy Adviser in Oxfam’s Global Humanitarian Team.
Driving out of Aden, you pass miles of dusty scrubland before reaching the hills that mark the entry into Taiz governorate. Since the conflict in Yemen escalated in 2015, Taiz has been on the frontlines of the fighting, and its capital – Taiz City – is at the centre of a battle that has been raging for years. Across Yemen, millions of people have fled to nearby towns and village to escape airstrikes, shelling, and ground fighting, and I am travelling to At Turbah – one of the areas that has welcomed people displaced by the conflict – to visit Oxfam’s humanitarian programmes.
The conflict in Yemen is entering its seventh year and shows no signs of slowing. Indeed, in recent weeks and months, violence has escalated in Marib, Hodeidah and Al Dhale’e. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of having to uproot their lives as a result of fighting – often for a second or a third time. Yet, despite the scale of the humanitarian crisis – which the United Nations continues to label the world’s largest – funding for aid agencies is drying out.
The UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator recently said that the funding situation is worse now than we’ve seen it at any point in the course of the crisis. The UN is cutting programmes across Yemen, and have already shut down around a third of their largest humanitarian programmes. Oxfam recently published an analysis which showed that out of 20 of the most generous donor governments to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen over the past three years, more than half have cut their funding by over a third since 2019. More humanitarian funding is desperately needed if aid agencies are to respond to the massive scale of need in Yemen.
Arriving in At Turbah, the cool mountain air was a far cry from the stifling humidity of Aden, and my colleagues teased that as a British person I would be better off staying with them than going back to the heat of the coast.
I went to visit one of Oxfam’s cash distributions in Ash Shamayteen district. There I met 31-year-old Layla. Layla – along with her husband and three children – had fled their home in Hodeidah, on the western coast of Yemen, three years ago.
“We were caught up in an active conflict zone, and when we were ordered by the security forces to leave our home we managed to take little more than the clothes on our backs,” says Layla.
Since arriving in Ash Shamayteen, Layla’s husband has struggled to find work. Rising prices mean that the food that they would normally buy – including staples such as flour – are now unaffordable. She often buys the family’s food on credit, and only rarely can she afford a piece of fish or meat for her children. As she held the cash that she had just received carefully in her hands, Layla quietly explained that, though she was grateful for the money she was receiving, she would give anything to be able to provide for her family herself. “In Hodeidah, we ran a small clothes workshop – but my husband and I were forced to leave everything behind when we fled our home, and we can’t afford to start the business over again.”
As we drove away, one of my colleagues told me that Oxfam hadn’t originally planned to be distributing cash in this area and had intended to hand over to the World Food Programme. But massive cuts to WFP’s budget meant that they didn’t have the money to deliver assistance. Luckily Oxfam were able to step in this time, but with reductions in funding this might not be possible in future. I tried to imagine how Layla and her family would have coped without the cash they received today; to some, it’s a trifling amount – the equivalent of less than £60 – but, to this family, the knowledge that they can rely on receiving this money every month for the next nine months is an enormous weight lifted from their shoulders.
The cash transfer programme that Oxfam is running in Taiz governorate is funded by the UK government, and I felt enormous pride knowing that my taxes are going to pay for Layla to be able to provide for her family. Pride isn’t something I feel often as a Brit in Yemen, unfortunately. Since the conflict escalated in 2015, the UK government has licensed $5.4bn in arms to Saudi Arabia.
There is convincing evidence that these may have been used in airstrikes that have hit schools, hospitals, and roads, making it hard for me to see how my government reconciles its commitment to the humanitarian response and peace efforts in Yemen with such a flagrant disregard for the impact that those weapons have on the lives of ordinary people. I think back to Layla, and the fact that she and her family wouldn’t have needed that £60 per month in the first place, had they not been forced from their home by the conflict.
It is clear that no amount of humanitarian aid is a substitute for peace. The Yemenis that I meet and speak with every day, as part of my work, tell me that all they want is to be able to support themselves and their families – something that the war is making impossible. Previous efforts to broker a ceasefire and to restart negotiations have faltered, but countries like the UK must use all their leverage on warring parties to ensure that a nationwide ceasefire is announced – and that it lasts. With Saudi Arabia this year’s host of the annual G20 summit, the time is right for the UK government to push for an end to the conflict.
I had asked Layla what she would tell the world, if she had the opportunity to have her voice heard. She had a simple message, one that I have heard echoed by countless people that I have spoken with in Yemen.
“All we wish for is a return to peace. All we want is to go home, to Hodeidah – that’s where our home is, and that’s where my children should grow up,” she said.
Tomorrow G20 leaders in Saudi Arabia discussing “realising opportunities for all”. Next door in Yemen, war means 10m people are starving & 80% need aid. Yemenis need food, medicine and peace before they “realise opportunities”. Silence the guns, Act now: https://t.co/B2lnrVWBnd pic.twitter.com/4FP3qxp4tO
— Pegg News (@simonpegg) November 20, 2020
Hannah Cooper has a decade of experience working on policy and advocacy in the fields of humanitarian response, forced migration, and conflict transformation. She first worked in Yemen between 2016 and 2017, and has spent the past six months supporting Oxfam’s humanitarian response in the country.