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A Journey To The Frontline For The Sake Of Children In Yemen

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Recently, UNICEF gained a rare access to Razeh district in Yemen's northern governorate of Saada along the country's border with Saudi Arabia. Razeh has witnessed intensive fighting, including some of the fiercest airstrikes and shelling in the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

Many health facilities around the country and in Saada, including the hospital in Razeh have been damaged in the conflict. Having been cut off by the conflict, the local population in Razeh finds itself in desperate need of health care. This was why a UNICEF team headed for the frontier district to assess how it could help the Razeh hospital resume its critical operations.

Claude Dunn, a Canadian, is the Chief of Field Operations for UNICEF Yemen. He led the team and writes about the journey and what he saw.

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In view of the fragile security situation I was all along skeptical about getting permission to travel. But what finally paid off is UNICEF's political neutrality and the resourcefulness of our colleagues from the Zonal office in Saada who did the groundwork to facilitate the trip. Despite the parties to the conflict in Yemen not having fully confirmed the extended ceasefire called for by the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy, we still managed to get authorizations for our travel to Razeh on 26 October. That, in itself, was no mean feat.

I was travelling to Razeh with a Yemeni colleague, Anes Al-Arashi, a UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Officer who knew the language and layout of the land well. We were also accompanied by local counterparts from the Saada Governorate Health Office. Their presence was particularly helpful. It ensured that we got through the numerous check points along the road. The bumpy road was rough and long. But it also offered some incredible Yemeni scenery as we passed through dry landscapes and rugged mountain terrains.

I was keen to talk to the people in Razeh hoping to understand the enormity of their tragedy.

It was not long before we were at Razeh. The town looked battered. A visit to the town's hospital was even more saddening. A part of the Razeh hospital had been reduced to rubble. It was heartrending to walk over the debris of a building that was once a lifeline to the ill and ailing. Another portion of the hospital building was partially damaged. This part was something that could be repaired and brought back to use. That is why during my visit, we confirmed that UNICEF will first support rehabilitation of the partially-damaged hospital building. We also agreed to soon reopen the nutrition unit and rehabilitate the water and sanitation facilities, including toilets.

Razeh was just one of several hospitals that have been damaged in the ongoing hostilities. According to the World Health Organization, more than half of Yemen's hospitals in 16 governorates are functioning either partially or not at all. That makes it all the more important to get Razeh hospital up and running so that the integrated health outreach activities can resume. When restored, teams of health workers will be able to pick supplies from the hospital and head into communities to vaccinate children, treat diseases, screen for malnutrition and refer critical cases to the hospital.

Between 24 to 29 September this year, during the second round of the outreach campaign, UNICEF and other partners had reached out to over 600,000 children under five and 180,000 pregnant and breastfeeding mothers in 333 districts of Yemen. The feat was made possible with the help of over 34,000 health workers supported by 880 program monitors who fanned out across the country.

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I was keen to talk to the people in Razeh hoping to understand the enormity of their tragedy. That's one of the reasons why I had brought along Anes Al-Arashi, to also be my translator. Unfortunately, there was little time to interact with the local community as we had to return to Saada without violating the stringent time restrictions imposed by the parties to the conflict. Indeed, the ceasefire appears very fragile -- nay over!

Even as I sat writing this in the evening, having returned to the UNICEF office in Saada, which also doubles as our residence, in the distance I could hear muffled sounds of bombs. The ominous sounds continued punctuating the otherwise quiet night, until sleep overcame me. As we took the return journey to the capital, Sana'a, my thoughts were with the children of the country, particularly the ill and infirm who have nowhere to go.

It's not just Razeh hospital that needs urgent attention. The primary health care system is itself just hanging by a thread of support provided by the international humanitarian community, including UNICEF. With the system having literally grounded to a halt, more children are likely to die. Already the number of children at risk is staggering: 2.5 million children are at risk of diarrhoea, 1.3 million at risk of acute respiratory tract infections and 2.6 million under age 15 are at risk of measles.

Malnutrition continues to stalk children: 1.5 million children under five years are suffering from acute malnutrition, 370,000 of them are severely acutely malnourished (SAM). It needs reiterating, a SAM child, due to a weakened immune system, is at a ten-fold higher risk of dying compared to normal children. UNICEF is scaling up its response in Yemen but the needs are so enormous.

For me and my colleagues, our immediate mission is to save lives. But for that to happen in earnest, the conflict has to end. During the visit to Razeh, I saw very few such encouraging signs.

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