Deserted arrivals halls. Empty baggage carousels. A wasteland of silent departure gates. Images that once seemed apocalyptic have become the new global reality. Today’s coronavirus pandemic has forced people across the world into a form of captivity often bemoaned as imprisonment.
As national borders have closed, respective worlds have shrunk. Opportunities, connections and freedoms have disappeared. Birth, deaths and marriages of friends and family on the outside have been missed. 2020 will be defined for many by all that they have had to give up.
Replace the word “pandemic” with “war” and the picture above holds true for millions of people in Yemen stripped of their right to travel for the past four years. Yemeni civilians have been trapped in an open-air prison since Sana’a International Airport was shut down in August 2016.
The pandemic internment is intended to keep people safe and well. Yemen’s is a death sentence.
For four years, seriously ill Yemenis living in the capital and across northern parts of the country have not been able to fly out for lifesaving treatment. Thousands of children, women and men may have died prematurely because they were unable to access hospitals abroad, according to local heath authorities.
Years of bombing, shelling and gunfire have damaged half of the country’s hospitals and clinics. Medical cargo through the airport has almost come to a complete halt. Yemen’s healthcare system teeters on the brink of collapse.
Humanitarian work brings me to countless crisis-hit countries around the world. Airports have inadvertently become my second home. But none prepared me for landing in Yemen’s capital, at Sana’a International Airport. Once a bustling gateway to the world, it is now a ghost terminal. Where it previously hosted as many as 6,000 passengers a day, stray cats now stalk the hallways. Souvenir shops are long shut. Faded adverts for Pepsi and Coca-Cola line the walls.
Clocks continue to display the time in different parts of the world, showing destinations that can no longer be reached. Only a small section of the airport creaks into life for a few hours each week to process a handful of aid workers. Humanitarians are the only passengers allowed in or out.
In February this year, after two years of hard negotiations and amid much fanfare, 28 patients were flown out of the airport for urgent treatment. Then the gates swung shut again.
The rusting hangars of the capital’s airport represent a wider blockade on Yemen’s land, sea and air routes. These closures have been responsible for escalating a humanitarian crisis regarded by the United Nations as the worst in the world.
Since 2017, vital food, fuel and medicine entering all of Yemen’s ports on the west coast—where nearly all commercial food enters the country—have been severely restricted or blocked outright. This is happening in a country almost entirely dependent on imports, and where 10 million people are at imminent risk of famine.
Before the first case of Covid-19 reached Yemen in April, the blockade and other import restrictions had left doctors struggling with obsolete equipment, and doubled the cost of many essential medicines. This stranglehold has continued during the pandemic, when obtaining the fuel to run ventilators or getting hold of a bar of soap marks the difference between life and death.
Today, hospitals in Sana’s are running reduced hours because of power cuts—fuel imports are at their lowest ever recorded. A quarter of a million people have had their water cut back or taps run dry because there is no fuel to run the pumps. With coronavirus added to the mix, it’s a toxic cocktail.
A combination of the blockade and restrictions on Yemen’s imports is also crushing what remains of Yemen’s economy. While ships carrying food and fuel wait at sea, small businesses are going under and prices are rocketing, pushing millions more people to depend on aid to survive.
The Human Rights Council believes the closure of Sana’a International Airport, plus the restriction of imports into a defacto naval blockade, violates the laws of war. Warring parties are required to do all they can to protect civilians, not collectively punish them.
Aid organisations have repeatedly called on the Saudi-led coalition and the Ansarallah authorities, the armed opposition group also known as the Houthis, to agree that medicine, food and fuel can freely enter Yemen, and restart regular passenger flights from the capital of Sana’a. But so far our calls have fallen on deaf ears. As coalition allies, the United Kingdom, United States and France also have a duty to apply pressure on both sides to end this political wrangling, which is causing endless suffering. They must do more.
People across the globe are hoping their national airports reopen and some form of “normal” life can resume. For Yemen, there has been no normal for too long. Opening Sana’a International Airport and the country’s air, land and sea routes is one concrete step that would have a life-changing impact for Yemeni people.
The only cost is political will.