Conflict

A doctor's diary from Yemen tells the story of the forgotten Arab war

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Natalie Roberts says that the conflict in Yemen is unlike anything she has seen in the region

Natalie Roberts says that the conflict in Yemen is unlike anything she has seen in the region

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Natalie Roberts

In Yemen, even a simple road journey can be risky.

"The roads are targeted. Cars are often hit," says British Dr. Natalie Roberts. "Every few hundred meters you see another burned out vehicle; every bridge on the road has been bombed out". 

Roberts, who is in Yemen with Doctors Without Borders, has worked in conflict zones before. But she says Yemen's war zone is unlike anything she has seen elsewhere. "What's really surprising to me here is that I've never seen so few [aid workers and journalists] on the ground. Syria, when i was there, was counted as the most dangerous conflict in the world — but Yemen? I just haven't met anyone."

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, and has been politically unstable since the Arab Spring. But civilian casualties really began to increase in March this year, when a Saudi Arabian-led coalition began bombing towns and villages to try to defeat a rebel force known as the Houthis.

More than 80 percent of Yemen's 25 million people are now in need some form of aid, and the United Nations has warned the coalition that indiscriminate bombing of populated areas is against international law.

Nevertheless, Yemen's war still gets limited attention from the international media. To try to change that, Roberts has been using her smartphone to keep audio diaries of her experiences providing emergency aid to civilians. Those diaries form a compelling account of daily life under the threat of ongoing airstrikes. 

In one recording, Roberts describes the anxiety created as a Saudi war plane begins circling over the town she is staying in. "Lunchtime — and it's overhead. It tends to happen at least once an hour," she tells her audio recorder. "This place makes me concerned about aeroplanes generally. Because you know if you hear a plane flying overhead — you're just waiting for the bomb to drop."

On another day, Roberts is working in a clinic in the mountains of North Yemen when a 6-year-old boy is brought in. "[He received] shrapnel to his eye, this morning," she explains. "It means he's lost his eye. He's being very brave, lying on his bed, still covered in blood, unfortunately. His mother's talking to him." In spite of the circumstances, she notes that the emergency room is still being kept in good order.

The cleaners are busy, which makes me happy that they are cleanng up everything that's on the floor — despite the fact that it's a very makeshift emergency room."

But for Roberts, the first priority is still to reach a stage where ordinary Yemenis are able to leave their homes in safety. "Obviously people have huge needs — the health needs, injuries that need treating — but if they have to stay inside because they are so afraid, there's not very much we can do to help them. 

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