Yemen: The recurring nightmare

18 Dec 2020

The conflict in Yemen, rooted in a failed political transition, has been simmering since 2011. Renewed conflict on the frontlines of Yemen’s Red Sea Coast has become some of the most intense in the country, increasing the number of civilians needing major war-trauma surgery.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) / Doctors Without Borders calls for an end to the indiscriminate and unacceptable attacks on civilians in Yemen.


The MSF trauma hospital in Mocha, a strictly no-weapons zone. It is vital to maintain a safe place for impartial care to all patients needing urgent emergency or surgical medical treatment. © Hareth Mohammed/MSF

Wounded women and children 

Since the end of November, staff at the MSF trauma hospital in Mocha have seen a significant change in patients presenting to the hospital. With increasingly active frontlines in the north and changes to military activities, the vast majority of severely wounded patients presenting at MSF’s trauma hospital are now women and children. 

In late November, seven civilian patients were wounded on their way back from a wedding when a roadside bomb exploded—five people were killed in the explosion, including a child. Two children found an unexploded munition on the roadside that exploded when they threw it to the ground; they were brought to MSF with severe abdominal and chest trauma wounds. In early December our teams admitted six people wounded when a milk-bottling factory was shelled, with patients saying at least ten of their co-workers were killed in the strike.

One woman who was treated at the MSF hospital had been at a clothing sale in a house in her village of Al Qazah with relatives. She doesn’t remember the explosion, but her father told her afterwards that a shell had landed on them; the reed and palm leaf house offered no protection. The woman woke up in the MSF hospital, having undergone emergency surgery to correct a rough amputation to both of her legs. Nine of her relatives, including five children, were killed in the attack. An 11-month-old child severely injured was immediately taken by ambulance to the more advanced MSF hospital in Aden, but the child died before they arrived.


The operating theatre at MSF’s trauma centre in Mocha, in the Red Sea Coast region of Yemen, where surgeons provide life and limb saving surgery. Since late November 2020, the overwhelming majority of patients have been war-wounded civilians. © Hareth Mohammed/MSF

“What we are seeing in our small hospital is disturbing, and outrageous,” says Raphael Veicht, MSF Head of Mission. “We treat everyone needing emergency surgery in our Mocha trauma centre – war wounded, traffic accident victims, and pregnant women needing emergency surgical delivery. But when it’s suddenly almost all civilians coming with terrible weapon wounds, that raises serious questions. 

"There is nothing that can justify this."

“Killing and wounding civilians in conflict not only constitutes a severe violation of International Humanitarian Law. It goes further than that… there is nothing that can justify this.”

The influxes of weapon-wounded patients to MSF’s hospital provide a confirmation that the frontlines in southern Hudaydah governorate are currently among the most active in the whole of Yemen. The intensifying conflict is also forcing hundreds of families to flee once again from their homes, and the expansion of areas at risk of shelling or other attacks means essential healthcare and food assistance is increasingly limited at the time when it is most needed.

“Whether targeted or indiscriminate, these attacks breach all the rules of war,” says Veicht.  “People just trying to get by, trying to survive, trying to be good mothers or fathers or brothers or sisters – these people are being killed and maimed, and that just has to stop.”


An ambulance on stand-by outside the ER department of the MSF trauma hospital in Mocha. © Hareth Mohammed/MSF

No safe place

In other locations in Yemen civilian locations continue to be attacked. Al Ahly Football Club in Taiz is a well-known civilian location away from the frontlines, located across the road from the MSF-supported Yemeni-Swedish Children’s Hospital and the Al Amal Cancer Hospital. On 12 December a shell hit the club where a football coach, his son, and two other children were playing. The injured were brought to the MSF Supported Trauma ER in Al Thawrah Hospital. The coach and his son were too injured to be saved, while the two other children received treatment.

"Sport facilities are maybe one of the only places left to give civilians in Taiz, especially children, moments of happiness in such a hard time, but seems not any more,” says a local Taiz resident. 

“This unacceptable act of violence deprives civilians from one of the only things left to make them still feel that they are humans and deserve to enjoy life despite what is happening in our city. This incident will stay forever in my memory whenever I play football again and will make me think a thousand times before I go to play football."

All parties of the conflict have a responsibility to ensure civilians and civilian infrastructure are respected and protected. MSF reiterates its calls to all armed groups involved in the conflict to abide by International Humanitarian Law and take all necessary precautions to prevent civilian casualties.