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International Community Brokers Cease-Fire In Yemen


In Yemen, a sliver of peace after a year of conflict that's left more than 6,000 people dead and destroyed large swaths of that land, a cease-fire went into effect yesterday after months of Saudi Arabian airstrikes aimed at opposing the Iranian-backed rebel Houthis who have seized power. The hope is that this seven-day truce will allow breathing space for internationally brokered peace talks. For more on the human cost of this war, we're joined from the capital Sana'a by Tarak Bach Baouab. He manages programs in Yemen for Doctors Without Borders. Welcome to the program.

TARAK BACH BAOUAB: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Now you there in Yemen are just a day into this cease-fire. What is it like where you are?

BAOUAB: Well, for now it seems that in Sana'a, in the capital, it is holding up. There hasn't been airstrikes last night, so we are cautiously optimistic that the capital will go through a period of rest. In other parts of the country, however, there has been some violations of the cease-fire. Sometimes, both the sides of the hostilities are not feeling bound by the cease-fire declared by, I'd say, the higher-level authorities. And the problem is that with the long-term conflict now ongoing in the country, there is more and more localized conflicts, and those are much more difficult to breach in terms of cease-fire.

MONTAGNE: Generally speaking, though, this has been a year of heavy conflict in Yemen. Those Saudi airstrikes have been just unrelenting. What is daily life for civilians trapped in this?

BAOUAB: Well, I think you have to realize that, first of all, this was already a very poor country. You have a high level of population, about 28 million people. And therefore, the country has always been relying on imports, particularly of cereals. Ninety percent of the food that is consumed in the country is important. And since the month of March and the de facto embargo on supplies coming into the country, it has been quite a struggle for everyday people to get their hands and to be sure on their next meal. And at the same time, people are obviously very afraid of aerial bombardment. So kids are traumatized. Whenever they hear the sound of a motor above their heads, they are quite afraid and want to hide. The whole country is basically getting traumatized, and it's struggling day to day to survive.

MONTAGNE: And I gather parts of the country could even be called or have been under a state of siege.

BAOUAB: They are actually indeed besieged areas in which it is very difficult to access for ourselves humanitarian workers but also, again, day to day for supplies of food or fuel. Fuel is essential in this country because it allows to pump water. The country is quite dry, and there is not a lot of rivers and so on, so fuel is an essential commodity. Fuel is also essential to transport food around the country, and therefore, a lack of fuel is really affecting the daily lives of people, not speaking about hospitals, which are not able to run because their generators are out of fuel. Hospitals are closing down, and there's obviously a lot of unnecessary deaths.

MONTAGNE: And what about you? Has Doctors Without Borders been able to function in its own hospitals?

BAOUAB: Well, over the last nine months, Yemen has become the main emergency for Doctors Without Borders. It is not easy, of course, to negotiate with the different warring parties. There are still some areas in the country where we are not allowed to access. We do have a substantial number of international staff, and we are helped as well by more than 2,000 Yemeni staff working with us day in and day out. But it's a struggle.

MONTAGNE: And the rest of the international community, could it be doing more to help?

BAOUAB: In March, when the conflict started or at least the conflict raised in intensity with the entrance of Saudi airplanes, most of the humanitarian community left the country and went to Jordan. The country is close to a breakdown. We are sure - we are certain with the people that we see every day in the hospitals who we support that there's not much hoping mechanisms left for this population, and they are quite close to a dramatic catastrophe from a human perspective and a humanitarian perspective.

MONTAGNE: Tarak Bach Baouab is with Doctors Without Borders. He spoke to us from Sana'a, the capital of Yemen. Thank you very much.

BAOUAB: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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