Scot leading UN efforts in Yemen warns country faces 'humanitarian abyss'

Looking out of his office window in the city of Sanna, in Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick can see storm clouds gathering. It seems an ominous portent for the war-torn country, which is currently in the grip of the world's largest humanitarian crisis.

“There is famine looming and all the services here have fallen apart, including health,” McGoldrick said. “Everything is just shredded. It won’t take much for people to get pushed into a humanitarian abyss.

“If the conditions prevail in the next three to six months, then that is what we will face by the end of the year.”

McGoldrick, who is from Glasgow, has the difficult task of heading the United Nations aid response in Yemen, which has been ravaged by war for the past two years.

The threats to the civilian lives are numerous with ongoing air strikes, food shortages, a lack of safe drinking water and few functioning medical facilities.

McGoldrick said he knew of cases where parents were forced to let a sick child die so they could manage to feed the rest of their family.

To add to the horrors, a fresh outbreak of cholera - the second in Yemen this year - led to authorities declaring a state of emergency last week.

In the past two weeks alone, more than 100 people have been killed by cholera and around 8,000 more are believed to have been infected.

Speaking to the Sunday Herald from his office, McGoldrick said: "We are in a very precarious situation here. On the political front we are waiting for a peace deal at some point in the future, but there is no sign.

"Meanwhile the humanitarian situation is getting worse by the day.”

McGoldrick, the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator in Yemen, said the collapse in health services meant there are thousands of children dying “silent deaths”. Half of the country’s hospitals or health clinics are closed and it is estimated that a child dies every 10 minutes from preventable diseases.

He added: “There are seven million people in this country who can’t tell you how they will feed their family tomorrow – who are basically living in a hand-to-mouth existence. So you get some very tragic situations where families have to make life or death choices.

“If you have no or limited money do you feed your healthy kids or do you spend that on a sick child?

“I know of cases where mothers and fathers have left their children die because they have to feed the rest of their family.”

For the past two years, Yemen has been devastated by war between forces loyal to the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and those allied to the Houthi rebel movement and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

More than 7,600 people have been killed and 42,000 injured since March 2015, mainly in air strikes carried out by a Saudi-led coalition – supplied by British weapons systems, some from Scotland – which backs Hadi, and is supported by the UK and US, .

The scale of the humanitarian crisis is laid bare in statistics from the UN which state two-thirds of the population – a staggering 18.8 million people – are in need of some form of assistance.

McGoldrick, 61, has worked for the UN for the past 20 years co-ordinating emergency responses in disaster-hit and war-torn countries including Somalia, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nepal.

In Sanaa, he lives in a fortified hotel with armed guards and travels around in an armoured vehicle because of security risks like kidnapping.

Every morning on his way to work, he passes the ruins of the presidential palace, monuments and civic buildings which have been flattened by airstrikes.

The frontline for the fighting is only around 19km from the city, and fighter aircraft regularly fly over on their way to bombing campaigns – although there is currently reduced activity because of heavy cloud cover in the rainy season.

McGoldrick said he had become used to living in these conditions and pointed out that, unlike the Yemenis, he can leave the country. Every four to six weeks he returns home to Glasgow to visit his wife and two daughters. For now, he is focused on getting the world's attention on Yemen – often described as a forgotten crisis.

One factor behind this, he said, is that media cannot get into the country to report on what is happening because of blocking by the authorities. The only flights allowed into the country are for humanitarian aid.

He also pointed out that many of those involved in the crisis – including the Saudi-led coalition – “did not necessarily want the story to be told”.

“The other dynamic is that Yemen is overshadowed by Syria and Iraq, which are very much in the regular mainstream media,” he added.

“I think connected to that is that you will never get Yemeni migrants coming to the shores of Greece or Italy – all of those things counter against Yemen getting the profile it so deserves.”

Last month the UN received pledges of around $1.1 billion dollars from the international community to support delivering aid to Yemen at an event in Geneva. Heralds Scotland