Yemen is fighting the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. A war between Houthi rebels and pro-government forces, exacerbated by the five-year campaign by Saudi-led coalition forces, has left an entire nation in need.
In numbers: more than 112,000 people have been killed, including over 12,600 civilians (conservative estimate) killed in targeted attacks. 24.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, with over 3.65 million people displaced from their homes. Almost half of Yemen's population is food insecure, with 2.2 million children malnourished, including 23,500 children with severe acute malnutrition at immediate risk of death.
But these numbers aren't new. This is a war that has been taken place for years, and only resurfaced periodically in media discourses. The crisis has consistently gotten worse, and our collective desensitisation has only grown. That luxury of distance is in strong contrast to what is happening in the ground, what we miss when we talk solely in grandiose terms, moral imperatives, and incomprehensible politics.
The global media silence about what’s taking place in Yemen is a crime that cannot be forgiven. It’s unforgivable.
Fatik Al-Rodani is a journalist and human rights activist who, for the past five years, has worked tirelessly to bring humanitarian assistance to his fellow Yemenis throughout the country. It's not hard to see why this man has been called the 'hero' of Yemen.
Starting with distributing 32 food baskets in May 2015, an almost-accidental incident Al-Rodaini came across while reporting on coalition attacks, the organisation quickly expanded its work to include water security and sanitisation, education resources, health and shelter assistance, while maintaining large-scale food security initiatives, becoming one of the few local, independent organisations delivering life-saving aid.
It's happened several times that we were working directly under airstrikes, and every time it feels like a miracle to survive.
We spoke to Al-Rodani to learn about his relentless work, the unimaginable dangers he and his team have endured, and how you can help.
You haven’t always been in humanitarian work. Tell me about how this started, and the situation that led to where you are now.
Originally, I’m a journalist. I hadn’t worked in humanitarian aid at all before, but in 2015, the situation became terrifying, it was disturbing. It was catastrophic around us. People were starting to be displaced from their homes, and it was tough to see that there were no international organisations working in this field at the time. So it was an initiative I started with the initial team to create something here, for the people.
Human life has become such an easy target, and you could die at any moment. At any moment, an airstrike might hit.
I was reporting live on the airstrikes that the coalition was carrying out on Yemen. In May, the province of Amanat Al Asimah was targeted with internationally-banned cluster bombs, which led to the displacement of a large number of families. On the 23rd of May, 2015, we had our first distribution, 32 food baskets of diversified foodstuff for displaced families.
Since 2015 until today, we have worked in more than 12 provinces in Yemen, distributed more than 50,000 food baskets to displaced and vulnerable families, orphans, and widows, more than 8,000 school bags, 20,000 pieces of clothing, and 15,000 blankets and other shelter material.
In March, we began focusing on water as well, and now we supply more than 30,000 litres of potable water per day. We’ve also supported families with direct cash transfers. We may have started with 32 food baskets, but we didn’t stop at food security.
In total, we have delivered aid to the value of $500,000, distributed in more than 12 provinces. Our office is in the capital, Sanaa, but due to the circumstances of war, we try to meet the immediate needs of people throughout Yemen.
You’ve delivered aid in the worst circumstances imaginable, often endangering your life in the process. If you'd like to tell me about the experience of doing life-saving work under airstrikes.
It's happened several times that we were working directly under airstrikes, and every time it feels like a miracle to survive. In June 2015, I was in an area called Harf Sufyan. I was distributing food aid, and there were airstrikes dropping cluster bombs on the area. I reported this on Twitter; it was the hardest night of my life.
The next day—we had had 180 food baskets—I had left them there and fled with my team, trying to bring ourselves to safety. When I returned the next day, I saw an area of 4-5 kilometres, completely burned to the ground. We thanked God that we had survived.
We provide sustained support to more than 150 malnourished children in several provinces, delivering monthly aid. And we’ve been able to see children recover from malnutrition.
And then again, it was November 2018 I think, I was in an area called Al Durayhimi in Al Hudaydah. That was after the siege, and it had become a military zone, under very intense fire. We were there, and we had distributed 300 food baskets, to the sound of bombs. There were canons, there were airstrikes above us. But thank God, we got away alright.
Of course, the young volunteers who were with me saw that I was different, this didn't seem like every other visit, even the dangerous ones. So that worried them, they thought that this time we won’t be coming home.
"Her name is Mona. And she was surprised when she found out that our charity is called Mona too. She smiled and asked us to take a photo of her as she held a bag of rice with the Mona logo." Taken by Mona Relief photographers during food assistance delivery in Sana'a.
But you’re still a journalist today. You document, you produce reports, you reflect the situation to the world. Why is that important, why is documenting and reporting a big part of the job for you?
I’m a journalist just like you. So writing is my passion. When you see what people are going through, something inside compels you to report it. The media, western or otherwise, doesn't talk about the reality of life in Yemen. There’s a huge gap between the real situation, and the silence of the media.
My work is not just about delivering aid somewhere and that’s it. In our visits to different areas, we try reflect the situation on the ground. In 2016, we reported to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Yemen that there are cases of severe malnutrition in Al Hudaydah. We were the first in April 2016 to report on the malnutrition in Hajjah.
I fled with my team, trying to bring ourselves to safety. When I returned the next day, I saw an area of 4-5 kilometres completely burned to the ground.
It has never been about just delivering aid, but also doing field visits to accurately inform, and produce news reports about the families most harmed by the war.
In April 2017, we were the first organisation to deliver urgent aid to fight the cholera outbreak in Sanaa. We were the first to help, and we produced press reports to reflect the situation as it unfolded on the ground.
I’m a Yemeni voice on the inside; my voice doesn’t reach the world because I don’t have the microphone. It’s not submission, but it’s a reality we must live, and therefore must learn to live.
In terms of our work, we want to show donors where their funds are going. Our reporting on social media only reflects a fraction of our work, but at the end of the day, it matters. People know their money is going where it should. Documenting is incredibly important to ensure our work is sustainable, and that we’re accountable to the highest standards of what’s expected of us.
With limited funds, how do you decide the priorities of your work?
We rely on our survey and mapping mechanisms, that show us where the most immediate needs are. And the priorities go to the most vulnerable communities, those who do not even ask for assistance. These families in desperate need are our priority.
There is a huge degree of corruption in organisations working in Yemen. The funds that actually reach Yemenis are scraps, they’re crumbs compared to what these organisations get.
Our documentation and reporting team is incredibly active, but there are families that we cannot even expose to the experience of being photographed. Because the situation they have found themselves in is so dire.
So we prioritise the most vulnerable families, to widowed families, and to families with children suffering from acute malnutrition. That’s in terms of food assistance. We provide sustained support to more than 150 malnourished children in several provinces, delivering monthly aid. And we’ve been able to see children recover from malnutrition.
In Yemen, poverty rates were already very high before the war. And now these rates have soared. And so you can think about it as an entire population in near-equal levels of need. Public sector workers haven’t received full, timely salaries since October 2016. I do translation work for a few businesses, but as a state employee, I only receive my salary maybe once every three or six months.
Can you tell me about the situation in Al Hudaydah, which has been reported as one of the most affected areas of Yemen currently?
The situation is catastrophic. Before, when we would visit from Sanaa, it would take us 6 hours. Al Hudaydah has a central supply route, the entrance to the province, called Kilo 16 that leads to Sanaa and other places. The distance from the main area to Al Hudaydah is maybe 10-15 minutes. Now, you need more than 5 hours to get in or out.
The situation is dire, a humanitarian crisis to tragic degrees. In Al Hudaydah, there are so many people whose lives have been completely destroyed. They depend mainly on daily wages, and this war has led to mass displacement, not just in Al Hudaydah’s urban centres, but also surrounding villages.
If the media really looked at what happened, the international community could no longer turn its back.
Human life has become such an easy target, and you could die at any moment. At any moment, an airstrike might hit. So in security terms, it’s frightening. In humanitarian terms, it’s frightening.
We still have ongoing projects there, through our volunteers. We support widowed families in Al Hudaydah on a monthly basis. In Al Durayhimi specifically, we have monthly and bimonthly cash transfers to families in need.
What has the recent coronavirus crisis meant for your work?
It’s a tragedy on the ground. But as a journalist, I can’t give you information I don’t know as fact. The numbers aren’t actually clear, we don’t know anything for a fact. But I can say without a doubt that it’s a disaster. There are cases around us, and it’s not being handled correctly.
And as a journalist, I want to ask you about the role of the media in this. There is a kind of passivity in how the situation is reported, as if these things just happen. But as history shows, these aren’t natural disasters. Famines don’t just happen, they’re made.
And the reason for that is very clearly the media, whose job it is to inform people. The global media silence about what’s taking place in Yemen is a crime that cannot be forgiven. It’s unforgivable.
It’s a disaster so much worse than I could describe to you. And the Arab world has no idea.
I’m a Yemeni voice on the inside; my voice doesn’t reach the world because I don’t have the microphone. So it’s not submission, but it’s a reality we must live, and therefore must learn to live.
But this is an important fact that the media doesn't realise: there is a huge degree of corruption in organisations working in Yemen. I’ve spoken about this on Twitter, about NGO corruption. And there was an Arabic hashtag #WheresTheMoney that a lot of us Yemenis launched to try and address that corruption. The funds that actually reach Yemenis are scraps, they’re crumbs compared to what these organisations get.
There’s also a revolving-door element to the coverage of Yemen, as it rises periodically in media coverage. Even the fact that I’m speaking to you now, when your work has been ongoing for five years, do you meet that with disappointment?
In Yemen, the topics that get attention are only ever the timely, immediate coverage issues, and even those are heavily manipulated. International organisations, for example, all direct their attention right now to malnutrition. And in a while, interest wanes, and attention goes somewhere else, to the cholera outbreak for example.
It’s as if these organisations are the ones leading both crisis and response. They dictate ‘we must speak about this now, it’s important now, that other topic isn’t urgent at the moment.’ And so it’s like there’s a swell of interest every once in a while, and then it disappears. And it’s international organisations and the UN in Yemen that really lead this.
And the international media has not done right by Yemen. And that has had a grave impact on the situation in Yemen, and the continuation of the war.
What’s the link that you see between media silence and continued war?
Every day, we hear of huge massacres. Every day, we see mass violations of the rights of the child. So the link is that—the media is silent. If it had shed light on the air raids that take place, or food security, or diseases, we would have seen timely solutions.
If the media really looked at what happened, the international community could no longer turn its back. But as long as the media is silent, the situation continues.
And the Arab world truly just does not know. It’s a purely political problem to them, and we as a people have become party to a conflict we never chose. The injustice that the people of Yemen have been dealt is appalling.
We have 500 active volunteers all over Yemen. They’re our support system in the field, extending our reach and producing reports, giving us a better idea of what kind of aid is needed at the time.
The sheer scale of disease transmission, of hunger, of the lack of clean water—they’re problems Arabs do not know. Because they aren’t living it, but we are. We live this reality, every day.
So the problems are multi-faceted. 60% of Yemen’s hospitals are defunct, which leaves a population of 30 million with 40% of the hospitals, which were ill-equipped to begin with, even before the war. Since May 2015 until today, we haven’t had electricity. The electricity I’m using to speak to you is either solar energy or from private sources. But the state can’t even provide power. Much of the road network is completely destroyed.
It’s a disaster so much worse than I could describe to you. And the Arab world has no idea.
What does Mona Relief look like now, in terms of volunteers and team members?
We have quite a large number of volunteers, over 1500. Of those, there are 500 active volunteers. Of course, when I say I have 500 active volunteers, it doesn’t mean they’re full-time, or that they’re receiving monetary compensation.
The financial compensation for volunteers in Yemen is a very small, symbolic fee. But they support us whenever we need it, and not just in Sanaa; they’re all over Yemen, so they’re also our support system in the field, extending our reach and producing reports, giving us a better idea of what kind of aid is needed at the time.
In terms of our core team, there’s around 13 of us in total. My wife and I also volunteer with the organisation. Though my full-time work is with the organisation, I do not receive a salary. My wife also helps me with the organisation, with no financial compensation. The other members of the core team are administrators, some write proposals, some run the finances, some are in the media side of things.
And throughout the organisation, the highest-paid member of the team receives 25,000 Yemeni riyals a month, which is around $40.* Our core team is all journalists who are whole-heartedly committed to this work.
Can you tell me about your funding? How accessible are funds currently?
It’s difficult to access funds of any kind right now. The sanctions on Yemen have also adversely affected humanitarian work. As Mona Relief, we have no ties with UN organisations or international organisations currently operating in Yemen. All our sources of funding depend on either local private donors, regional private donors, or some international organisations operating outside of Yemen.
It’s very hard right now. You might have noticed our Patreon campaign, and we’re seeing a lot of people donate, and we’re being tweeted by people with millions of followers. People are seeing that we are in the field, we’re providing support. Thank God, over the past few years, we’ve built a solid reputation as an organisation. Over the past five years, we’ve provided immense support, with completely independent, humble efforts.
Of course, we’re facing issues in accessing funds. We’re struggling with people who want to send foodstuff from abroad, so we can’t access it easily through the Port of Aden. Right now, we’re trying to work through this obstacle with the Yemeni authorities.
There are local donors, there are donors from Kuwait who support us, also from Ireland and from different countries. We have the support of strong international organisations like Humanity First, Partners Relief & Development, a third organisation called Schools for Peace in Poland (Szkoły dla Pokoju). We also had the support of British organization Khalsa Aid. In the past, we’ve depended on crowdsourcing donations on IndieGogo, until November 2018, when the website changed its process, which made it harder to access the money in Yemen.
We also have a co-founder Hassan Aziz, who is based in Denmark, and is a huge support to me in running Mona Relief, particularly in fundraising, donor relations, and campaigns.
But you also rely on local vendors, benefitting the local economy as well.
We buy from local markets for two reasons. The first is that we don’t have the capacities of big organisations or international institutions to import from abroad. And it’s not easy to get that aid through when it does arrive.
The second reason is that we do have resources readily available here. They’ve become far too expensive, yes, but we depend on what is available in local markets.
Because we’ve built these personal relationships with local vendors, it also makes things easier when we don’t have access to funds, or if they take a long time to get cleared once funds arrive. We can commit to vendors via a kind of honour system that—even though we can’t pay them right now—we’ll be paying them in a month or two.
*The official exchange rate currently stands at around 250 riyals to the American dollar, but the official rate has little relationship with the real currency value, which currently stands according to Al-Rodani at 620 riyals to the dollar.