By Marina de Regt Last Saturday the holy Muslim month of Ramadan started. Ramadan, a month of fast-ing and feasting, a month of contemplation, a month that should be full of joy and happiness. In Ramadan Muslims experience what it means to be hungry which will make them cherish what they have and feel compassion for those who are poor and hungry. Who will fast Ramadan in Yemen this year? Are there still people left who are not starving to death? Are there still Yemenis who need Ramadan to know what it is like to be poor and hungry?
Out of a population of 25 million, 19 million people are in need of humanitarian aid (food, health care, housing and the like) of which 10 million are in acute need of food. The war, which has now entered its third year, has affected almost everyone in the country: the infrastructure is damaged severely, roads, buildings and houses are destroyed, electricity has been cut, trade has come to a halt, government salaries have not been paid since the summer of 2016, schools are closed, there is no clean drinking water and diseases such as cholera are spreading quickly. Militias are occupying the main cities, fights are going on between different groups all around the country and the Saudi coalition continues to bomb in an attempt to get the Houthis out. More than 6000 people have been killed, more than 40.000 wounded, and 3 million people are internally displaced.
“Ramadan Kareem, my dear, may you be happy and in good health. My daughters and me love you” is a Whatsapp message I receive from Amina, an old friend from Rada’, a rural town where I worked in the early 1990s. I thank her and ask if she is OK, to which she responds positively. A few weeks ago Amina told me that she has a kidney disease and needs daily medication otherwise she will be very sick. I had sent her some money so that she could buy the drugs she needs. She told me that her two daughters are at home, the schools and universities are closed, and she does not like them to go outside because she is afraid that their father, who she divorced a long time ago, will kidnap them. He wants to marry them off in order to benefit from the dowry. Amina has always done her utmost for her daughters to go to school, and wants them to get an education and find a job before they marry. But will she be able to hold on to this in the current situation?
My friend Fatoum in Sana’a also wishes me a happy Ramadan. Fatoum often sends me pictures of flowers, to wish me good morning or a beautiful day. But sometimes she sends me voice messages, like this one two weeks ago: “Good morning, Marina, how are you? I know you are busy, and I am busy too. The situation is not good here. You know that cholera is spreading in Yemen? Every day dozens of people die, and more than that. They get diarrhea and start vomiting. They say it is because we don’t eat fresh vegetables anymore, and because of the dirty water. We are boiling the water and drink lemon, and use other natural products to prevent it. There is garbage everywhere, and because it is raining these days, it has become so dirty, garbage is floating around in the streets. People try to collect and burn it but the disease is spreading rapidly. Everybody is afraid. I am still alive today but tomorrow I may be dead. Yallah, I hope you are OK and we will meet soon again.”
While the war in Yemen has occupied my mind since it first started, the situation of my friends is becoming more and more precarious, and is affecting me as well. Not only Noura, one of the friends that I regularly support financially, is now in need of help, but even friends who were having a government job are now impoverished. The only people who can survive in the current situation are those with connections, and in particular those with relatives abroad, who can send them money. While I know that Amina and Fatoum hold me dear, I also know that I am one of the few lifelines they have, and that they count on me when they are in need. And I am wondering how long they can endure this situation, and how long I can continue to support them…
This week I was invited to speak about the situation in Yemen at two different events in the Netherlands, both organized by student groups. There were also a number of Yemeni speakers, who predicted that Yemen will follow Somalia, Syria, and Libya and that the war will continue for decades. It is a hugely depressing thought, and almost impossible for me to accept. Against all odds, I wish Yemen and all Yemenis a Ramadan Kareem. Let’s hope the tide can still be turned….
If you want to support Yemen, financially or in another way, please send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Marina de Regt is assistant professor at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She specializes in gender issues in Yemen and Ethiopia.