Starvation: Yemen’s most deadly weapon
It’s estimated that 85,000 children under the age of five have died from acute malnutrition in three years of war in Yemen. But famine is tragically once again becoming a deadly weapon of war across the globe While wishing the need never existed, I’ve los
HIS eyes fixated me. They bore right into my own, rarely blinking, as if reading my thoughts. Old eyes they were, not those you would expect of a one-year-old child. They were worldly eyes, damning, tender and terrified all at the same time. What those eyes had already witnessed I could only imagine.
What hardship, suffering, wickedness rather than the usual childhood wonderment had seared back through this youngster’s gaze to give him this look?
His name was Yap Ji Kany, and his whole being seemed to me etched with anguish.
Perhaps his look came not so much from what he had seen as the pain and hunger this little boy was clearly enduring.
I call it the acid test. A child is dying before your very eyes, not on television, not in a photograph, but right there in front of you.
While wishing the need never existed, I’ve lost count over the years of the times when I also wished others might witness this for themselves. Only then perhaps would fewer of us have the capacity to turn our gaze away, for I defy any sane person to stand before a starving fellow human being and not feel outraged and want to help.
That day almost four years ago when I came across little Yap Ji Kany was far from a unique experience but for some reason stays in my mind.
I’ll never forget the feverish sweat that streamed down his face, congealing where it collided with the cream smeared in a vain attempt to relieve the corrosive rash of a skin infection that had broken out across his face and tiny malnourished body.
His young mother, Nyaker, was sitting on a plastic chair with Yap Ji perched on her lap.
Everywhere around them lay the stinking open sewers and tarpaulin tents of Tomping Camp bulging with other hungry, displaced families.
Nyaker and Yap Ji had come here to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, from the northern town of Bentiu. War, fear and above all that other horseman of the apocalypse in South Sudan, hunger, had brought them from Bentiu’s misery to this wretched UN Juba compound awash with rainy season mud.
Caught in the crossfire between government and opposition forces in Bentiu, Nyaker, Yap and his brothers and sisters had at first fled their village into the bush.
Three days later, what little money the family had was spent and the pangs of hunger began to take their toll on the youngsters.
Nyaker had no choice but to steer her children through the frontline fighting and make her way to the camp in Juba in the hope of finding food and shelter.
“We saw lots of bodies, so many dead as we came from the bush into the camp,” Nyaker recalled.
Though comparatively safe from the fighting while in the camp it was now starvation that threatened her children’s health. “Always they are hungry, asking about food many times every day, but what I can do, there is so little to go round,” Nyaker told me, the desperation evident in her eyes. Though years have now passed since I met Nyaker and her children, today hunger still stalks South Sudan.
In this long-suffering part of the world there is a local proverb that says: “When God made Sudan, he laughed.” The irony of the proverb’s meaning is all too true and could just as easily apply to so many parts of the world where hunger is near constant and full-scale famine never far away.
Just last week a report by the humanitarian agency Save the Children estimated that 85,000 children under the age of five may have died from acute malnutrition in three years of war in Yemen.
“For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are dying from hunger and disease and it’s entirely preventable,” Save the Children said in its statement.
The key phrase here of course is “entirely preventable”. Over the past weeks the United Nations itself has warned that 14 million Yemenis are now on the brink of famine.
What’s more, Yemen is not alone in facing the scourge of hunger. According to the UN’s most up to date figures global hunger has risen over the past three years returning to levels from a decade ago. Right now a staggering 821 million or one in every nine people are hungry, making the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger by 2030 little more than a pipedream. While each of the countries affected by the threat of famine over the past few years do so because of conditions specific to each of them, war has been a contributing factor in every one. And war as we know is “entirely preventable”.
In Yemen, which the Famine Early Warning System Network calls “the largest food security emergency in the world” perhaps as many as half a million children are severely malnourished.
More than any other country, Yemen demonstrates the human consequences when food access becomes a weapon of war. Nowhere is this more evident than in case of the country’s port city of Hodeidah, currently the scene of bitter fighting.
Prior to the war, 80 per cent of all imports into Yemen entered through this port. With Yemen heavily dependent on