Health Care Under Siege: This is What’s Happening in Taiz, Yemen

Since May 2015, MSF has been providing medicine and surgical supplies to Taiz hospitals that are treating people affected by the ongoing conflict. MSF teams also run a trauma center and a mother and child hospital. July 24, 2015: A son mourns at his mother’s grave in Taiz. Photo: MSF

Chris McAleer, a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) logistician, recently returned from Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city.

Taiz has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the recent conflict. There are airstrikes going on, and constant indiscriminate shellfire, both in and out of the city. The shelling often hits civilian areas and people’s homes, as well as hospitals. There are a lot of snipers, and many areas have been landmined. There isn’t just one risk — there are many.

July 2015: A staff member puts an MSF sticker on the door of an MSF medical facility in Taiz, Yemen. Photo: MSF

I was based in MSF’s mother and child hospital in Al Houban. My job as a logistician was to make sure that everything was running smoothly, and that the medics could do their work as well as possible. While I was there, there were a number of mass casualty events, so I also had to set up a temporary morgue and put people in body bags.

One of the worst moments was on November 17, when the frontline shifted by as much as two kilometers (one and a quarter mile) and there was a big increase in fighting within the city.

At 7:30 p.m. we were upstairs in our living quarters above the hospital when we heard reports that a blast had hit a busy market nearby that was crowded with evening shoppers.

Immediately, we tried to find out if there was ongoing shelling. As soon as we were sure it had stopped, we sent ambulances to the location and alerted both our trauma center and our mother and child hospital to receive hot cases [the most seriously injured patients].

He was brought into the trauma center and was dead on arrival. That really hit home. It was very tough for the staff to get through that, seeing one of their own colleagues brought in dead.

Then we went downstairs to prepare ourselves as best we could. That evening we had around 30 casualties, both wounded and dead. They arrived in ambulances, in the backs of pick-up trucks, in minibuses, and in little cars.

We organized triage, dividing them into green, orange, and red cases, according to the severity of their injuries, and tried to give dignity to those who had been killed.

It was at this point that we learned that one of our staff, a watchman in our trauma center, had been killed.

June 2016. Photo: Debris and blood on an operating room floor in Taiz. Photo: MSF

He was brought into the trauma center and was dead on arrival. That really hit home. It was very tough for the staff to get through that, seeing one of their own colleagues brought in dead.

With the frontline shifting so quickly, some of our own staff couldn’t get back to their own homes. They had to sleep in the hospital because they had nowhere else to go.

MSF works on both sides of the frontline in Taiz, supporting four hospitals inside an enclave besieged by the Houthis and running a trauma center and the mother and child hospital in the Houthi-controlled area of Al Houban.

In the middle of a conflict, people’s day-to-day medical needs can often get overlooked. We are mostly looking after women and children, but we also provide support for all those injured in the war. Our team in the mother and child hospital helps to deliver about 400 babies a month, as well as treating children for malnutrition.

Because the health system in Taiz has slowly collapsed, a lot of people have nowhere else to go for medical care. We are one of the few medical facilities still functioning in Taiz.

At the height of the fighting, there was outgoing shelling from near the hospital both day and night. At the same time, there were airstrikes targeting these artillery positions. As hospital staff, it is very scary because you simply don’t know what will happen.

People in Taiz have immense needs for food, medical care, water and sanitation, and shelter. The situation is very bad, but what struck me most was the strength and commitment of our Yemeni staff.

You always have to act normal, but in the back of your mind you’re always scared. You don’t know if someone will arrive at the hospital with a weapon; you don’t know if you’ll get hit by a shell or an accidental airstrike. You’re there with the Yemeni staff and the local people, sharing that risk with them.

Sue Cowell/Atomo Design

For me, one of the most powerful things was to be able to say: ‘Whatever the situation is like, we are here with you guys and we’re not going anywhere.’

People in Taiz have immense needs for food, medical care, water and sanitation, and shelter. The situation is very bad, but what struck me most was the strength and commitment of our Yemeni staff.

Every day they come to work, despite the sniper fire and shelling. They are committed to trying to save the lives of the people of Taiz. Although the situation is bad, people are not helpless in terms of their desire to help other people — that spirit has not died in Yemen.”

January 2016: “We were living a decent life in our home. Now, we live in this unfinished building where we do not have even toilets.” Photo: Malak Shaher

MSF is urgently asking all parties to the conflict in Taiz to respect international humanitarian law, ensure the protection and neutrality of medical structures and personnel, facilitate the delivery of medical and humanitarian aid, and allow the wounded and sick to safely access medical care. These issues must also be addressed throughout Yemen, in all 10 of the governorates where MSF is providing medical care.