‘Yemen is a difficult country to navigate’ – Karl Schembri

Students gather for a morning drills outside of the teacher's house, who turned it into a makeshift free school that hosts 700 students, in Taiz, Yemen October 18, 2018. Picture taken October 18, 2018. REUTERS/Anees Mahyoub

Maltese charity worker, Karl Schembri, has been speaking to Newsbook.com.mt about his experiences of working and travelling across Yemen over the last few years.

As the media advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council, he has been documenting some of the stories of those displaced by the conflict.

He gave us a glimpse of what it’s like to work in Yemen, a country ravaged by a civil war which has killed and displaced millions of people.

Around 18 million people suffer from food security with a further 22 million in need of humanitarian aid, ‘that’s three fourths of the entire Yemeni population’, Schembri explains.

‘Those are official figures but the actual figures are believed to be much higher.’ Schembri says, adding that the famine and cholera is a country-wide problem, ‘Its a huge humanitarian crisis out there.’

‘He was completely destroyed’

When asked about some of the personal stories, Schembri talks about ‘Yassar’ a man who lost family, his home and his business, on one fateful night.

‘I met a father, his name was Yasser, he lost his house and three of his children in one of the first air-raids. He told me this story about he was asleep, it happened at night and before he knew it the house was bombed and he found himself unconscious, he was rushed to hospital. It took him days to realise that three of his children were also gone, together with his house and business. When i met him, he was completely destroyed and still traumatised.’

The fate of Yasser is unknown but according to Schembri, he is now one of the 22 million people relying on humanitarian aid.

‘It’s a forgotten crisis and it could be because few journalists get in’

Yemen is a hard, bureaucratic and ‘extremely restrictive’ country to work in, Schembri explains. It’s an active war-zone with fighting still on-going between the Houthi rebels and the Saudi led coalition.

Access within the country is strictly controlled by checkpoints dotting the country. Foreigners seeking to travel overland need to duplicate their documentation.

‘There are bascially two governments so everything is duplicated, so if you want a visa to enter, you have to register your movements, you have to get permission in advance to move from one area to another, even more when you’re crossing lines from one area to another.’

Humanitarian flights operated by the UN, is the only way to enter and leave the country and space on those humanitarian flights is tight.

‘There is no other way.’, Schembri says, ‘In fact that is why you hear very little of Yemen, very few journalists get in, some manage. We can’t take them with us.’.

‘There aren’t really refugee camps here’

According to Schembri, the refugee camps are not the type of places we would recognise from pictures of camps, like those in Cox’s Bazar or South Sudan. These are informal settlements and collective centres where displaced Yemenis are living.

Given the situation, it makes it hard for the humanitarian organisations like the NRC to respond.

To date, Schembri’s organisation has been providing education for children, water and sanitation, cash assistance and shelter services to people in the poorest areas. Added this is the legal advice they provide for those who have lost their documents, allowing them to claim humanitarian aid.

He explains that these efforts are targeted at helping a people that are essentially prisoners within their own borders.

‘Yemenis cannot actually leave the country, there is a blockade being enforced by the Saudi-led coalition. They have got no where to go, they cannot legally leave the country.’