The histories and geographies of Syria and Yemen are portraits in contrast among the nations of the modern Middle East. Syria has been central to the region since biblical times, and remains so today. Some 1,500 miles southwest, Yemen is a politically weak peripheral player, sitting at the bottom of the Arabian Peninsula, marginalized by geography, poverty and a dearth of oil. Indeed, it is the region’s poorest country. Yet for all their differences, in recent years the two countries have shared a common nightmare: they have been the sites of horrific, seemingly intractable wars that stand among the 21st century’s greatest humanitarian tragedies. The countries’ people have endured immeasurable, unimaginable suffering.
International Medical Corps was present in both countries when the conflicts began and has remained there in the years since, despite deteriorating and often-desperate conditions, working to ease suffering and save lives. The month of March marks grim anniversaries for both nations and, as Syria begins its tenth year of war and Yemen marks the start of its sixth.
The collective human toll is shocking: an estimated 600,000 people dead, roughly 15 million displaced, and extensive damage to or destruction of basic infrastructure over vast areas of both countries. Syria’s war has generated 5.5 million refugees—the largest from any single nation. Yemen’s conflict helped spawn the world’s largest cholera outbreak, with 2.2 million suspected cases between April 2017 and the end of 2019.
International Medical Corps has provided millions of medical consultations in Syria, while in Yemen we have helped stave off famine and saved the lives of countless malnourished children through our nutrition stabilization centers. We have also provided potable water to local hospitals and other health facilities that would otherwise be forced to close. Here is the story of how people’s lives in one community in Yemen were changed by providing a few things that most people in the developed world take for granted.
Saving Lives by Restoring Essential Services
It wasn’t hard to understand why the residents of Al-Hanaka village were happy when an International Medical Corps team arrived in August 2018 to assess the remote community’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) needs. The remote village, located in the Lahij Governorate, in the southwest corner of the country, had many needs after years of war. The International Medical Corps team was the first from an international NGO to undertake the arduous five-hour trip from Taiz City, the governorate’s capital, since the conflict began in 2015.
The journey, already difficult due to mountainous, unpaved roads, was further complicated by the presence of dozens of military checkpoints controlled by fighters with shifting loyalties.
But the demanding trip quickly proved to be worth the effort. Years of conflict had robbed Al-Hanaka of most all its basic services. The village health clinic had run out of medicines during the 2017 cholera outbreak and, due to challenges presented by the rugged terrain and heavy fighting in the area, many of those who contracted the disease died before they could be transported to an operational health facility. The village well pump also had broken, depriving residents of easy access to potable water—which, of course, further complicated efforts to contain the spread of cholera.
“Death simply surrounded us from everywhere,” one resident recalled.
Despite continued fighting and other challenges that restricted access to the community, the International Medical Corps team was able to complete its assessment. After careful planning, the team began working in the village in July 2019 to deliver lifesaving assistance. Soon, the village health facility reopened. And with the close cooperation and support of village leaders—which included the assistance of an International Medical Corps senior water engineer in negotiating the release of an outside contractor working with us, who had been detained by an armed group in the area—the team also managed to transport and install a new water pump for the village well in the late summer of 2019.
It was a big day for Al-Hakana when the International Medical Corps WASH team conducted its first test of the newly installed pump. The entire village seemed to hold its collective breath as the test started—but when residents could see the water flowing, they erupted in shouts of joy.
“They were very happy—dancing, laughing and hugging each other,” recalls Senior Water Engineer Fayad al-Derwish, “The project was long and complicated, but in the end, we succeeded. We restored essential services to the village—and we saved lives.”