LONDON – As 4-month-old Hussain Al-Kholani has ever known is war and scarcity – he weighs only 4 1/2 pounds, less than a third of the average American baby at that age.
“Hussain has suffered from malnutrition since he was born,” Ali Hussein Al-Kholani, the boy’s father, told ABC News. “They are asking me to take him to the malnutrition clinic in [Yemen’s capital of] Sanaa, but I have no way of getting him there. “
Ali Hussein is unable to work and is forced to feed his family – his son, daughter, wife and four brothers – by relying on food distributions from aid organizations. They live in a small hut on the outskirts of Al-Dahi, a widespread refugee camp for internally displaced people in the northern province of Hajah. He cannot afford to buy his youngest diapers for children, let alone travel across the poor country to get him treatment.
The story of the Al-Kholani family is not unique: Approx. 2 million children need treatment for severe malnutrition, where at least 360,000 are at risk of dying, according to the World Food Program. In nearly six years of conflict, aid workers have been desperately struggling to provide supplies and medical support to the now 24.3 million Yemenis – a staggering 80% of the total population – who need humanitarian aid.
Added now to the protracted crisis is a new risk of rapid deterioration: One of President Donald Trump’s last acts in office – appointing the Houthi militant group Ansar Allah as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” – could prevent aid organizations from working in much of the country and, in the words of a US senator, constitutes a “death sentence for millions”.
The situation in Yemen has already been categorized by the World Health Organization as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The origins of the conflict are complicated and come out of the instability in the Arab Spring, but the war has raged since 2015 with both sides suspected of committing war crimes. The Saudis in particular have received international criticism, with the United States and the United Kingdom continuing to export arms to the Kingdom, despite allegations that the weapons have been repeatedly used to target hospitals and civilian sites.
The fighting between the Iran-backed Houthi militia and the Saudi government has reached a wide deadlock. The Houthi militia now controls large swathes of the country, while the Saudi government is based in Aden and recognized by the international community.
The latest violence killed 25 people and wounded 110 others in a missile strike at an airport in Aden, a city in the south that Yemen’s internationally recognized government accused the Houthis – a reminder that both sides are far from resembling a diplomatic solution. The Houthis denied responsibility for the blast, The Guardian reported.
The country is at a breaking point. In the first six months of 2021, about 16.2 million people, half of the total population, are expected to face “acute levels of food insecurity”, according to the WFP, which needs at least $ 1.9 billion to provide a minimum level of food aid to avoid famine. The UN group now says that conditions this year are likely to be worse than in 2018, the last time Yemen experienced famine-like conditions.
“How are they going to get food?” David Beasley, the group’s chief executive, asked the UN Security Council last week. “How do they get fuel? How do they get medicine? It’s going to be a disaster … we’re getting a disaster in our hands.”
Last month, UNICEF warned that Yemen “is teeming with collapse” and “perhaps the most dangerous place on earth to be a child.”
“A child dies every 10 minutes from a preventable disease,” said CEO Henrietta Fore. “Two million are out of school. And thousands have been killed, maimed or recruited since 2015.”
For Hussain and 12 million other children, everyday life is a “waking nightmare” – with conflicts seen on 49 different front lines, the group said. According to the WFP, 1 million pregnant or breastfeeding women require treatment.
At a malnutrition clinic at Bani Hassan Hospital in Hajjah Province, Dr. Ali Hajer told ABC News that the food supply at the center was “zero” as the aid supply had been disrupted over the past few months.
“The Yemen war destroyed everything, such as the economy, health and living conditions in Yemen,” he told ABC News. “This assistance is very important. If this humanitarian aid stops for the Yemeni people and the Yemeni children, there will be a huge disaster.”
COVID-19 makes the situation even more difficult for health workers and humanitarian organizations. As of January 19, there have been 2,119 confirmed cases and 615 deaths, but the WHO is supporting another wave at a time when only half of the health facilities in the country are fully or partially operational. Over the past few years, Yemen has experienced what the WHO called the worst cholera outbreak in modern times, as well as further outbreaks of diphtheria, dengue fever, measles and malaria.
The situation risks deteriorating further. On January 12, the United States officially designated Ansar Allah as an FTO in response to its alleged “terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure and commercial shipping,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. prior to the appointment, adding that the movement was “intended to advance efforts to achieve a peaceful, sovereign and united Yemen that is both free from Iranian interference and at peace with its neighbors.”
But the FTO designation now means that it is illegal for individuals or groups to provide “material or resources” to Ansar Allah, which means that without official exceptions, no external agencies can provide assistance to large parts of the country under their rule.
Aid organizations have said the decision could actually make their work impossible to carry out, as supply lines and access already have a constant risk of constant disruption. In addition, they said the FTO designation would not curb terrorism.
Amanda Cantanzano, senior director of International Programs Policy and Advocacy on the International Rescue Committee, told ABC News that the IRC was “outraged by the decision.”
“We see it as something that will create barriers, so it will be almost impossible for us to effectively and efficiently provide aid to those in need. And it would be a crisis anywhere. But in Yemen it is a disaster,” he said. she. ABC News.
Kirsten Fontenrose, a former NSC senior director of golf affairs, told ABC News that the nomination was being considered but not pursued in Trump’s early years due to a number of factors. The UN advised that the term would “make it impossible” to pursue a political solution in Yemen, but in the end the administration found that Ansar Allah both “exploited the space to operate to carry out further terrorist organizations” and “exploited this vulnerability in the aid community, “if members would oppose the designation.
“Ansar Allah will see to it that this designation is helped to work harder,” Fontenrose told ABC News. “They want to amplify the voices that are contrary to the designation, so they have to make the effect look as gloomy as they can.”
However, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy said political sabotage was a more likely motive.
UN Security Council members have warned that there can be “no military solution to the conflict.” Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen, said the FTO appointment could have a “cooling off” on bringing the parties together for dialogue.
“What is difficult is that the language of the FTO legislation is not intended to apply to a quasi-governmental organization,” Jon Alternam, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told ABC News. “So it’s a lot about how you can have nothing to do with this kind of people … The Houthis control well over half of Yemen’s population. This is not like dealing with Al Qaeda. “
“This is not to say that Houthis do not do monstrous things, it is not to say that Houthis do not threaten civilians all the time – they do,” he said. “But how do you come to a solution if you criminalize ordinary contact with them?”
Antony Blinken, Biden’s candidate for foreign minister, has said the new administration will “immediately review” the appointment. But it can involve a rather complex legal process, and it can take some time to sort out, according to Alternam. Murphy told ABC News that this period could be crucial as the Yemenis continue to suffer.
“This is a death sentence for millions of Yemenis because over the next few weeks they will run out of food and starve to death,” Murphy said. “It’s so simple. And the fact that the Trump administration went ahead with that designation, knowing it would be the consequence, is absolutely devastating. It’s heartbreaking. It’s amazing.”
For people like Hussain and his family, there is no end in sight – and everyday decisions are just getting harder and harder.
“[We have] only a food basket from the World Food Program, “said Hussain’s father. We’ll sell it either to treat the boy. Or take it home so we can eat. “
ABC News’ Ahmed Baider and Conor Finnegan contributed to this report.