More than 10,000 people have died due to their inability to travel for life-saving treatments. That’s because of a year-long blockade of the airport in the capital, according to Yemen’s health ministry.
SANA'A — Naef Qadri, 36, was overcome by a stabbing pain in his abdomen in early August. His brother, Hamdi, rushed him to the Hospital of Science and Technology in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, where the doctors discovered that Qadri was suffering from a tumour in his colon.
After further tests, Qadri was shocked to learn that the tumour was colon cancer. It had already spread to his liver, meaning he needed to travel outside Yemen to seek life-saving treatment.
Yet that is no easy feat. Yemen is in the midst of a Saudi-led bombing campaign. Around half of its medical facilities have been destroyed since fighting began in March 2015. On top of that, Sanaa Airport is closed, meaning the ill must travel to either Seiyun or Aden to even reach an airport.
"If you want to travel abroad for treatment, you need to wait for weeks, or sometimes even months, because the Saudi-led coalition closed the airport. Only Yemen Airways still flies to Seiyun and Aden airports," Qadri told TRT World, referring to the airports in the east and the south of the country, that are still in service.
Even before the conflict, Yemen's hospitals lacked modern medical equipment and there was a serious shortage of qualified surgeons and doctors. Most Yemenis, therefore, have long preferred to go abroad for any serious operations.
Now, however, travelling abroad is extremely costly. And Qadri couldn’t wait.
“I had no other option than to have the operation on my colon done in Sanaa. I hope to do the chemotherapy for my liver in India as doctors told me there is proper medical equipment and doctors."
The airport is held by the Houthis, who also control the rest of Sanaa and its surrounding provinces. The airspace over Yemen, meanwhile, is dominated by the Saudi-led coalition, which is helping the Yemeni government to fight the Houthis.
In August 2016, the Saudi-led coalition imposed restrictions on Yemen's air space, preventing commercial flights from landing in Sanaa.
There are about ten UN humanitarian flights into Yemen each week. But the flights, which land in Sanaa and Aden, are not available to Yemeni citizens. In December, the UN estimated that the closure of Sanaa Airport had prevented an estimated 20,000 people from accessing life-saving healthcare abroad.
Qadri went ahead with the colon surgery in Sanaa in late August. It was urgent and he couldn’t risk waiting for the next direct flight to India, which won't be until November 6.
And he still needs chemotherapy for the cancer in his liver, but treatment isn't available in Sanaa. Qadri still needed to buy a ticket to India to seek treatment there. To avoid waiting until November, he decided to travel to Egypt on October 10. From there, he will take a flight to India.
Even then, however, he might be too late.
"The doctors told me that if I do not do the first chemotherapy injection before the end of September, the cancer will spread further in my liver,” Qadri said.
”But I didn’t find any flights with seats available before the end of September, so may God help me to arrive in India in time."
Qadri tries to joke with his loved ones about his suffering, to ease their concern. Through it all, he remains optimistic and believes that God will help him to receive the life-saving treatment before it’s too late.
Crossing mountains and valleys
Qadri is still suffering from the effects of his colon surgery, meaning it will be difficult for him to travel. Just getting to the airport in Seiyun takes about 20 hours of driving on very rough roads. Some of the roads are closed and people must drive through backstreets in mountainous terrain.
Like Qadri, all Yemenis awaiting critical medical treatment abroad must find alternative routes to leave the country. Reaching other airports also involves driving for about 20 hours and costs around $50 — and usually means travelling through areas where active fighting is taking place.
Seiyun Airport lies 600 kilometres to the east of Sanaa. Some patients don’t survive the difficult trip.
“Some of them died on the way to Seiyun,” he said. “I hope that the Saudi-led coalition reopens Sanaa Airport to help those patients who are facing death and may die if they did not travel abroad."
Lacking any other options, however, Qadri has decided to go ahead and make the arduous journey.
Haitham al Samei, who lives in Sanaa, left Yemen in April 2016 for Egypt to accompany his mother who needed treatment for kidney failure. First, however, they needed to make the journey from Sana'a to Seiyun. They made it to the airport but he said it was extremely tough, even for those in good health.
"The warring sides closed the main road between provinces, so we drove through mountains and valleys," Samei told TRT World. "If the disease does not kill the patient, the rough road might.”
Death as a result
Ali al Ameen, was a 49-year-old from Taiz City. A year ago, he began suffering from pain in his prostate. His son, Muneer, decided to take him to Sanaa, as most of the hospitals in Taiz had already been forced to close.
When they arrived in Sanaa, the doctors found Muneer’s father had prostate cancer and said he needed to travel abroad for treatment. In order to afford the trip to Egypt, Muneer had to ask his mother and sisters to sell their jewelry.
"We struggled to raise enough money to take my father to Egypt, but the cancer had already spread through his prostate and my father couldn’t handle the rough route to Seiyun, so we decided to stay in Sanaa," Muneer told TRT World.
After suffering constant pain for more than eight months, Muneer's father died in June 2017. The closure of Sanaa Airport was a main factor in his death.
"I want to send a message to Saudi Arabia that the victims of the closure of Sanaa Airport are civilians and not Houthis,” Muneer said. “I hope to stop civilians dying because of the closure of the airport."
The health ministry in Sanaa, which is under the control of the Houthis, said last month that more than 10,000 Yemenis have died because they are unable to travel for life-saving treatments.
A source in the ministry clarified to TRT World, on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to media, that: "while we can’t give specific figures, the closure of Sanaa Airport has left thousands of casualties."
He explained that the war increased the number of patients and injured people who need to travel abroad for life-saving treatments and, in addition, they cannot travel easily as before due to the blockade.
The source said there are two main reasons preventing sick and injured people from being able to travel abroad:
“One of the reasons is the expensive tickets of Yemen Airways, which monopolises the flights from Yemen to other countries. The other is the closure of Sanaa Airport, since many patients and injured people who can’t afford the trip to Seiyun and Aden."
The ministry already has called on international organisations to exert pressure on the warring sides to reopen Sanaa Airport, but all attempts were dashed, according to the source.
Aid groups agree. Some 15 of them said in a collective statement on August 9 that the official closure of Sanaa Airport effectively traps millions of Yemeni people and serves to prevent the free movement of commercial and humanitarian goods. The statement called on the actors to lift the restrictions on Yemen’s airspace and to allow for the reopening of the country's main airport.
The statement called on the actors to lift the restrictions on Yemen’s air space and to allow for the reopening of the country's main airport.
"The Yemeni ministry of health estimates that 10,000 Yemenis have died from critical health conditions for which they were seeking international medical treatment but were unable to do so due to the airport closure,” the statement read.
“While difficult to verify independently, this estimate is roughly equivalent to the number of people that have died as a direct result of the fighting. It represents the hidden victims of the conflict in Yemen."
Prior to the conflict, an estimated 7,000 Yemenis were travelling abroad from Sanaa each year to access medical treatment, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says. Because of the unrelenting violence, the amount of people requiring life-saving healthcare abroad has grown exponentially. For the past 24 months, it now numbers an estimated 20,000 Yemenis a year, according to OCHA.
This situation violates freedom of movement, the NGOs argue, a human right safeguarded in article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with Yemenis extremely restricted in their ability to travel for medical care, to study, to conduct business or to visit relatives.
The Norwegian Refugee Council’s Yemen country director Mutasim Hamdan called the result of the airport closure “devastating.”
“Thousands of women, men and children who could have been saved have now lost their lives," he said. "Beyond air strikes and cholera, the war in Yemen is devastating Yemeni lives on all fronts."
Humanitarian effects restricted
The closure of Yemen’s main international airport comes as Yemen is experiencing a humanitarian crisis of devastating proportions. It negatively affects the speed at which humanitarian organisations can deliver much needed commercial supplies and humanitarian aid to roughly 20 million Yemenis in desperate need. Nearly all humanitarian organisations are forced to rely on the UN Humanitarian Air Service for travel in and out of the country.
A revised UN humanitarian assessment on July 27 said the number of people in need of assistance had risen from 18.8 to 20.7 million, a figure equivalent to almost three-quarters of the total population.
The health ministry source confirmed the extent of the crisis: "The health ministry depends on international organisations to provide health facilities with medicines and medical supplies as the ministry cannot help."
Since the escalation of the conflict over the past two years, the Saudi-led bombing campaign and other fighting have resulted in more than 54,000 casualties, and devastated existing infrastructure in an already poor country. Some 1.2 million Yemeni civil servants have not been paid their usual salaries for nearly a year, causing the slow collapse of public services and swift escalation of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
As he waits to travel to India to try to save his life, Qadri agreed that civilians are the main victims of this war.
"Civilians are the victims everywhere — the fighting kills civilians, diseases hit civilians, the closure of the airport affects civilians, the economic blockade hits civilians,” he said sadly.
Allowing Yemenis to travel more freely would save at least some of those innocent lives, he argued:
“I appeal to the international community to help civilians and to reopen Sanaa Airport."