In Yemen, a mother's quest to save her baby from starvation

Hagar Yahia holds her 5-year-old daughter Awsaf, who is suffering from malnourishment from living mainly off of bread and tea, in this Feb. 9, 2018 photo in Abyan, Yemen. Yahia, her husband and eight children fled from their hometown on Yemen’s western Red Sea coast to escape the war, eventually ending up more than 200 miles away in the village of Red Star in the south. Ever since, they've struggled to find enough food. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Umm Mizrah, a 25-year-old Yemeni woman, holds her son Mizrah on a scale in Al-Sadaqa Hospital in the southern Yemen city of Aden in this Feb. 13, 2018 photo. Rageh, who is nearly into the second trimester of her pregnancy, weighed 38 kilograms (84 pounds), severely underweight. Mizrah, who was 17 months old, weighed 5.8 kilograms (12.8 pounds), around half the normal weight for his age. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Hagar Yahia, a Yemeni woman, shows the amount of flour she uses to make a loaf of bread, in this Feb. 15, 2018 photo taken in Abyan, Yemen. On the few good days when she or her husband find work, they may have some vegetables. But most often they eat a heavy bread called “tawa” that fills the stomach longer, Yahia said. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Hagar Yahia, a Yemeni mother of eight, cries in her hut in Abyan, Yemen in this Feb. 9, 2018 photo. Displaced from their home and scrounging for work, she and her husband can barely afford to buy enough food for their family. “I go hungry for my children. I prefer that I don’t eat so they can,” she said. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Staff measure the middle upper arm of Salima Ahmed Koryat, a 6-month-old Yemeni girl, to test how malnourished she is at the main hospital in Mocha, Yemen, in this Feb. 10, 2018 photo. The girl, whose family fled fighting in the nearby Mowza region, weighed only 4.2 kilograms (9 pounds). (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
A doctor shows on her mobile phone a photo of Fadl, an 8-month-old Yemeni boy taken in his last days before he starved to death, in this Feb. 10, 2018 photo at a hospital in Mocha, Yemen. Fadl’s mother gave birth to him under a tree as she fled fighting, and ever since she struggled to get him enough food. Eight months later, at the time of his death, the baby boy weighed 2.9 kilograms (6 pounds), a third of the normal weight for his age. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
This Feb. 13, 2018 photo shows photographs of severely malnourished infants hung on wall in the administrative office at the Aden Hospital, in Yemen. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Mothers and children crowd into a center for treating malnutrition at the main hospital in the town of al-Khoukha, Yemen, in this Feb. 12, 2018 photo. They left empty-handed: The center has virtually run out of supplies, even as doctors estimate 40 percent of the children in the town suffer from malnutrition. Shifting front lines in the war have cut off aid routes and fighting has driven thousands of people to take refuge in the town. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Hagar Yahia pulls the veil off of her malnourished 5-year-old daughter, Awsaf, to feed her, in their hut in Abyan, Yemen, in this Feb. 15, 2018 photo. Towns and villages all around southern Yemen are full of scrawny and stunted children. With the war dragging on and people falling deeper into desperation, aid agencies warn that many parts of Yemen will be struck by outright famine with widespread death. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Food hangs in sacks on the wall of the home of a displaced family, in Lahj, southern Yemen, in this Feb. 11, 2018 photo. Many markets in Yemen have food but increasing numbers of people are unable to afford it in the economic collapse caused by the war. That is one reason aid agencies warn that parts of the country will soon fall into outright famine. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Hagar Yahia pours tea for her 5-year-old daughter Awsaf in their hut in Abyan, Yemen in this Feb. 15, 2018 photo. Many families across southern Yemen described how they live largely on bread and sweetened tea, sometimes just once a day. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Umm Mizrah, a 25-year-old Yemeni mother, reveals her collarbones and emaciated ribs to be photographed, in this Feb. 13, 2018 photo at Al-Sadaqa Hospital in Aden, Yemen. Umm Mizrah, who is nearly into the second trimester of pregnancy, weighs 38 kilograms (84 pounds) and is severely undernourished. She has been eating one meal a day trying to feed her youngest son, who is badly malnourished. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
Awsaf, a 5-year-old Yemeni girl, eats bread and drinks tea _ which on many days is the only food she has _ crouching next to her mother in their hut in Abyan, Yemen, in this Feb. 15, 2018 photo. Across southern Yemen stretches a landscape of desperation, in towns, villages and camps for the displaced, families are left unable to afford food amid the civil war between Houthi rebels and a government backed by a destructive Saudi-led air campaign. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)
This Feb. 15, 2018 photo shows the hut made of tree limbs and rags where Hagar Yahia and her family live in Abyan, Yemen. Her family is among 18,000 people who escaped war zones further west and streamed into Abyan province, a stretch of territory where Yemen's barren mountains meet the Arabian Sea. There, they join a resident population that is also struggling to feed itself. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

MOCHA, Yemen — The baby twitches his legs in pain in the video. He's crying but he is so dehydrated his eyes can't produce tears. His inflated belly is as taut as a balloon. It is easy to count the 12 rows of protruding ribs on his rapidly palpitating chest.

The video, filmed by a doctor, shows 8-month-old Fadl suffering not from disease, but from starvation.

Three years into a civil war, Yemen is starving and could soon start to see widespread death from famine. Houthi rebels hold the country's north, and a Saudi-led coalition, armed and backed by the United States, has sought to bomb the rebels into submission with a relentless air campaign in support of the Yemeni government.

Some 400,000 children are fighting for their lives in the direst state of hunger, severe acute malnutrition — the stage of swollen bellies and twig-like arms that are signs the body is eating away at itself for lack of nutrients and protein. In Yemen, around 2.9 million women and children are acutely malnourished, a stage of starvation just short of severe.

Fadl's mother, Fatma Halabi, recalled the life before the war in the western district of Mowza, near Yemen's Red Sea coast. In those days, the family had fish and vegetables often. Her husband, a woodcutter, could make the equivalent of $4 a day.

Mowza was in the hands of Houthi rebels for most of the war. Last year, government forces descended on the area to drive the rebels out. The fighting and airstrikes sent people fleeing, some of them scattering across the Great Valley.

Separated from her husband, Halabi led her four children and two goats across the Great Valley, the arid plain spilling down from the mountains toward the city of Mocha on the Red Sea.

These desolate stretches are historically a site of death. More than 400 years ago, a Muslim ruler forcibly sent almost the entire Jewish population of Yemen here for refusing to convert. Chroniclers say two thirds of them died in the heat and deprivation.

Halabi and the children hid in thorn bushes to avoid artillery and airstrikes along the shifting front line. One day in April last year, she went into labor and, alone, gave birth to Fadl under a tree.

Eventually, she and her husband reunited and settled in an abandoned hut in the valley.

Speaking from inside her makeshift home in February, Halabi sat with a rope cinched around her emaciated waist, even as her blue robe kept sliding off her bony shoulder.

She spoke in short, exhausted sentences. When asked what she had eaten that day, she said, "Bor," the local Arabic word for flour. "We stay patient," she said. "We have to feed the children." When she gets hungry, she lies down and tries to sleep.

Often she and her husband eat one meal in the morning, and nothing again until the next day.

Unable to breastfeed Fadl, she gave him goat or camel milk, which lack the nutrients of breast milk or formula. The newborn kept getting fever and diarrhea, so she repeatedly borrowed money to take him to the hospital in Mocha.

The hospital has seen 600 malnutrition cases within 10 months, but is so short on supplies it doesn't even have pain relievers for headaches, said one doctor, Abdel-Rehim Ahmed. It has no therapeutic feeding center. None of its doctors have been trained in treating malnutrition.

And Mocha is swelling with 40,000 displaced people.

Left untreated, prolonged malnutrition causes the body to lose its stock of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. The brain struggles to find energy, the heart shrinks, and the skin cracks, exposing the body to infections. The kidney and the liver stop functioning properly, so toxins build up inside the body, leading to a vicious cycle of disease.

Fadl's last visit to the hospital was Nov. 29. At eight months old, he weighed 2.9 kilograms (6 pounds), a third of the normal weight. The circumference of his upper arm, a common measure for malnutrition, was 7 centimeters, less than 3 inches. That indicated severe acute malnutrition.

Unable to pay for a hospital stay, Fadl's parents took him home.

He gave his last breath not long after in the arms of his grandmother. His exhausted parents were asleep on the floor. The grandmother woke them and told them their boy was dead.

The only image of Fadl from his short life of hunger and pain is the video, taken by the head of the nutrition center. His parents don't have mobile phones or a camera.

"Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I remember he's no longer there and I start to cry," Halabi said. "Who wouldn't cry for their children?"


The AP's reporting on the war in Yemen is supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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