MOULIS, Yemen – The choice fell on Mohammed Fulait Ahmed, shaming him.
Her children were starving, and now her two youngest were sick – their tiny bodies burning with fever, their emaciated chests trying to breathe. Mohammed’s pockets were empty and a trip to the hospital, three hours away, would cost more than it had done in months.
Desperate for help, he begged a local businessman to lend him money. The man agreed to lend her about $ 50, just enough to help pay for a child’s trip to town. The other should stay behind.
Chapter 1: The Choice
Every day seemed to bring Muhammad new such indignity, a painful and impossible situation.
Should he eat his share of the little food his family had, or fast to let each child have an extra bite?
Should he go find work that he knew didn’t exist, or beg for khat, the narcotic leaf that many people chew in Yemen, and then try to resell it for a mouthful of bread?
Now he was forced to choose between two children he loved, 9 month old babies born to each of his two wives.
The boy, Ali, fell ill first, slowly getting worse and then suddenly all at once. The day before, his eyes had closed and now they wouldn’t open. The girl, Reena, was getting weaker, but was still awake.
There was not much time to weigh his options. The sickest child, Mohammed decided, needed treatment first. So he and his wife Anisa wrapped up the boy and began the arduous walk down the hill to the valley below, where they hoped to find a way to get to town.
Chapter 2: The Crisis
In this valley of Hajjah province, where small stone houses dot the hills, many breadwinners like Mohammed, a short and thin man, once worked as day laborers and khat farmers.
But as fuel prices skyrocketed amid Yemen’s long civil war, trucks that once showed up to take them to work began to disappear, local men said. The construction projects they were working on were at a standstill. There was intense competition for the few agricultural jobs, leaving many men without any source of income.
At the same time, food prices also skyrocketed and families were suddenly unable to purchase basic items such as rice and vegetables. In Hajjah province, the World Food Program recorded a 25 percent increase in food prices this year.
Many women, suffering from severe hunger, said conditions made it almost impossible for them to breastfeed their children.
The hunger crisis in Yemen is widespread and many people in Mohammed’s area are now surviving on little more than boiled leaves.
The country narrowly avoided an official declaration of famine in recent years after an increase in humanitarian funding. But now the United Nations says without another urgent intervention, such a designation will be inevitable. At least 5 million people are on the brink of famine, the UN said, and some 47,000 people are already living in near starvation conditions, including 5,000 in Mohammed’s home district of Maghrabah.
This disaster is entirely man-made. There is no food shortage, just financial barriers to buying food.
For about seven years, the Houthi rebels fought the internationally recognized government for control of the country. The government, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, controls the country’s airspace and has imposed severe restrictions on the port of Hodeida on the Red Sea, a crucial gateway for imports from the north of the country, where the Iranian-backed Houthis are in power. . Diplomats and aid officials have long warned that the restrictions cut a vital lifeline.
The Houthis attribute the fuel crisis to restrictions on the port and have refused to discuss a truce until the Houthi-controlled Sana’a airport is reopened and all restrictions on the port have been lifted.
Analysts following developments in Yemen say that while port restrictions contribute to high fuel prices, fuel entering Houthi-controlled areas is being hoarded and sold at high prices on the black market, exacerbating the crisis. .
Chapter 3: The Journey
Using the money they borrowed that day, Mohammed and Anisa found seats in a van, which drove them for several hours to the city of Hajjah, the provincial capital. As the truck drove along the unpaved valley road, Mohammed’s spirit rushed with concern over the child next to him and the others he left behind, he said. he told later.
Back home, Mohammed’s other wife, Bushra, tried to care for the other eight children in the family. Every morning, she said, they would wake up crying from hunger.
No one in the family owns a phone, so she couldn’t hear from the boy or share that the girl, Reena was only getting worse. “I was afraid he would die there and die here,” she recalls.
When Mohammed and Anisa arrived at the hospital, Ali’s diagnosis was grim. He was severely malnourished and suffered from a lung infection, Mohammed told the doctor.
Four days after arriving at the hospital, Ali escaped. âHe died in my hands,â Anisa said. “I hugged him and kissed him and that was it.”
That evening, motorcycles brought the grieving parents home. Each took turns taking Ali’s body, now wrapped in a white shroud, in their arms. They buried him near their house that night, covering his small grave with a mound of earth and sticks.
Chapter 4: the dead
Several days passed, and when Reena’s eyes closed like Ali’s shortly before his death, Mohammed knew it was a disturbing sign. But with his neighbors as poor as him, there was no more money to borrow, only debts to repay.
The next day, Bushra sat in the outdoor kitchen, boiling tree leaves, known locally as halas, for lunch. Reena, sliding in and out of consciousness, silently slumped onto his arm.
When the leaves softened into a thick green stew, the other children gathered together, dipping their hands into the pot and licking their fingers until it was all gone. Mohammed stepped back, pouring cheap powdered tobacco into his mouth to help curb his appetite.
âIf we had the money, we would take her to the hospital,â Bushra said, hitting a fly that landed on Reena’s foot.
Instead, “she’s probably going to die here,” Mohammed said. “What can we do?”
That afternoon, Mohammed and Anisa walked quietly on a dirt road to their son’s burial place on a small hill.
The trees rustled in the wind. A woman herding sheep passed on the dirt road below. Anisa, perched on a rock, approached the grave, kneeling down to gently pluck a thorny branch piled on top of it.
Nearby, her husband crouched on the floor, his collarbone sticking out from under his faded button-down shirt.
“I’m thinking of the girl,” he said. âThe girl will follow the boy.
The day after Reena closed her eyes and lost consciousness, a team of Washington Post reporters visiting the village learned of her condition and arranged a free ride to take Mohammed, Bushra and Reena to a hospital in the city. city ââof Hajjah on the same day. .
In a makeshift examination room in an upstairs hallway of Al-Jumhoori Hospital, a team of nurses from the malnutrition ward carefully noted Reena’s measurements. His height: 24 inches. His weight: 11.9 pounds. The circumference of his arm: 4.25 inches.
The measures confirmed the suspicions of doctor Adel Ali Alabdali. Reena suffered from severe malnutrition, which can weaken children’s immune systems and make them more vulnerable to disease. While hunger alone doesn’t kill a hungry child, other side effects often do.
And even those fortunate enough to receive treatment often return home under the same conditions that initially made them sick, he said. Some have to seek treatment again. Some never come back.
He set Reena down on the table and listened to her labored breathing. He also suspected a lung infection, he said. With antibiotics, fortified milk and vitamins, she would have a good chance of recovering.
Reena lay silently as the nurses pricked her with needles to collect vials of blood and inserted a small IV port into her foot.
The staff looked around. In two small rooms off the hall, a dozen other young mothers of malnourished children sat crammed into beds lined up against the wall, their babies lying next to them.
There was only one bed left, Alabdali said. Reena could take it.
Unlike her brother, she would survive.