The Huthi armed group and forces allied to it are endangering the lives of thousands of civilians in the southern city of Ta’iz by blocking the entry of crucial medical supplies and food over the past three months, in blatant violation of international humanitarian law, said Amnesty International.
Testimony gathered by the organization from 22 residents and medical staff living in Yemen’s third largest city paints an alarming picture of civilian suffering and hardship. Most of the city’s hospitals have shut down and the few that remain open are on the verge of collapse due to a lack of supplies. One resident’s newborn baby died hours after he was born because of severe oxygen shortages at the city’s hospitals.
“The Huthi forces appear to be deliberately barring the entry of civilian goods, including vital medical supplies and food, fuelling a humanitarian crisis with devastating consequences for residents of Ta’iz,” said James Lynch, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.
“Blocking humanitarian aid is a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Residents are effectively trapped within an enclave of Ta’iz and depriving them of basic necessities amounts to collective punishment of the civilian population.”
All routes into and out of Ta’iz are controlled by the Huthi armed group and its allies. Restrictions on entering and leaving the city have tightened significantly since the conflict began. Only al-Duhi crossing to the west of the city has remained open on an intermittent basis, leaving residents largely trapped inside.
Residents told Amnesty International that members of the Huthi armed group and its allies have stopped civilians crossing checkpoints from bringing in fruit, vegetables, meat, clothes as well as gas cylinders for cooking and oxygen cylinders destined for hospitals, in some cases confiscating the goods. International humanitarian law absolutely prohibits the blocking of medical supplies. All parties to the conflict must allow unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian relief for civilians.
Amnesty International spoke to five doctors in Ta’iz who said they are desperately in need of more anaesthetics, oxygen and surgical instruments to treat patients injured during ongoing fighting between Huthi and anti-Huthi armed groups inside the city.
Only four local hospitals within the enclave remain functional. Even these open and close sporadically depending on whether they manage to get hold of medical supplies, which in most cases have been smuggled in via a smuggling route over a mountain south of the city around 3,000m high.
Mohammad Shihabi took his newborn son to five different hospitals in December in a frantic search for oxygen but was unable to get the supplies needed to save his son’s life.
“My son was 14 hours old when he died… When he was born the doctors told us he needed intensive care and oxygen because he didn’t have enough fluids. We took him to every hospital we possibly could before he finally died. I wanted to take him outside the city but there was no way out,” he said.
The director of al-Rawdha hospital said they desperately needed oxygen cylinders for intensive care units and prenatal incubators. He said Rawdha hospital was no longer able to take in patients requiring intensive care or surgery due to a lack of oxygen.
“We receive 15 to 20 such cases every day. Today we received five, three of them died. They were all civilians seriously injured during indiscriminate shelling,” he told Amnesty International in December.
He warned that another local hospital, al-Thawra was also running out of oxygen supplies.
According to the Ta’iz Medical Committee, a local group set up to help address the medical situation and reallocate supplies, before the conflict began the city’s hospitals required around 200 – 250 cylinders of oxygen per day. Today the four remaining operational hospitals have to share 20-30 cylinders between them, which are smuggled in across the mountains carried by donkeys. Average prices of smuggled oxygen cylinders have shot up from $20 to around $70.
“All parties to the conflict must ensure the delivery of medical aid to civilians in the city of Ta’iz. Deliberately obstructing such deliveries has had heart-breaking consequences for civilians requiring urgent medical care,” said Lynch.
Samar Ameen, an activist from Khadeer, in the west of Ta’iz city, described to Amnesty International how members of the Huthi armed group confiscated a delivery of 34 oxygen cylinders destined for al-Thawra hospital in January.
“They held the driver for three days. He told me that they humiliated him and pressured him to confess he planned to deliver the oxygen to opposition groups,” she said.
Despite Ameen’s repeated attempts to retrieve the oxygen cylinders by presenting evidence to prove the oxygen supplies were intended for al-Thawra hospital, the Huthi armed group refused to return them.
Around 80 percent of shops in the city are closed and the prices of smuggled goods have soared, with basic supplies now costing around four or five times the usual local rate. Many residents are struggling to afford food to feed themselves and their families.
Even bread has doubled in price. Abdullah Ali, a father to six young children and a resident of the poor al-Sameel neighborhood, told Amnesty International: “I am unemployed and there are no work opportunities so every meal is a struggle…We need at least one bag of roti [bread] to feed the household for one meal.”
In late January the World Food Program, Médecins Sans Frontières and Saudi Arabia-led coalition were allowed to make small aid deliveries into the enclave of Ta’iz but local residents told Amnesty International the supplies were woefully insufficient.
“All parties to the conflict have an obligation to ensure the civilian population in areas under their control has access to humanitarian aid. By blocking aid the Huthi armed group are deeply aggravating a cycle of civilian suffering in Ta’iz and flagrantly flouting international law,” said Lynch.