TAIZ: When Ali Ghanem’s doctors told him his cancer had spread from his colon to his backbone, they said they didn’t have the facilities to give him the needed radiation treatment in his home city of Taiz, in central Yemen, and that he needed to get to the capital.
But Ghanem was trapped. Shiite rebels have been besieging Taiz for more than a year. The city has been a battlefield between the rebels and local fighters backed by a campaign of airstrikes by Saudi Arabia and its allies. His 25-year-old son Abdel-Maged told AP that they couldn’t carry him the five kilometers (three miles) on foot out of the city to find a vehicle able to take them to Sanaa.
“He couldn’t move,” he said. “Doctors told us to keep him home till he dies in peace and leave it to God.”
Ghanem, a 53-year-old pharmacist, died last week. His son spoke to The Associated Press after returning from the graveyard.
Yemen’s civil war has wreaked massive destruction and created a humanitarian disaster in what was already the Arab’s world’s poorest country. Taiz, one of the worst battlegrounds, has seen another level of misery: The city of around 400,000 is home to Yemen’s largest cancer hospital, the Amal Hospital, and the war has doomed hundreds of its patients to death because they are unable to get treatment.
Amal Hospital itself has been a battleground. Last summer, the Shiite rebels, known as Houthis, stormed the facility. They declared it a military zone, snipers took positions on its rooftop, tanks surrounded it and sandbags were set up as defenses as they battled local fighters. Hospital staff and patients had to move to the basement to avoid mortars, bullets and shrapnel.
Days later, the Houthis’ opponents retook the building, driving out the rebels, who responded by shelling the building with artillery from the surrounding hills. The hospital, whose name means “hope” in Arabic and which previously treated 5,600 cancer patients a year, was nearly destroyed, with toppled walls, charred bed and shattered equipment.
Taking only patients’ records and three of the machines, staffers relocated to a new building in a shopping mall in downtown Taiz. It receives up to 50 cases a day, a third of the number it took in the past, with only 20 beds.
Now patients have few choices. They can brave getting through front lines to reach the facility — if it is able to treat them in its reduced form — or they can try to escape Taiz, on foot to avoid Houthi blockades at the exit, to reach transportation to get to Sanaa’s oncology center 120 miles (200 kilometers) away down hazardous roads often pounded by airstrikes and fighting. Or they can stay at home and wait to die.
More than 640 cancer patients being treated at the hospital died in 2015, triple the number of deaths the year before, said Amal’s chief Mokhtar Said Ahmed. The number of those who have died in their homes is not known, he said.
The yearlong conflict in Yemen has left more than 9000 people dead and 27,000 wounded and has driven 2.4 million people — nearly 10 percent of the population from their homes. Infrastructure has been destroyed, nearly 14.1 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. The health care system has collapsed, at least 600 facilities across the country have closed down, and those that remain struggle to get supplies.
Once Yemen’s cultural center, Taiz has been divided into zones, some under Houthis and others under the resistance fighters. Houthis have closed off the entrances to the resistance-held areas, and residents there depend on smuggling food, fuel, medicine and other supplies on the back of donkeys through back roads. International relief groups have had only limited access to the city to deliver aid.
Even with a cease-fire in place across much of the country, fighting has continued in Taiz, a vital prize in the war since it lies at a midpoint between the north held by the Houthis and the south, where Saudi-backed forces are centered.
Said, the head of Amal, said the plight of cancer patients is only getting worse.
“Many more cases will be subject to death now because they don’t have medicine, especially in children,” he said.
Those who were getting treatment have had to endure months-long disruptions in their treatment. And those who survived so far struggle to get back to Amal’s new facility.
Feras Ali Hassan, a 10-year-old who was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 6, had seen improvement over two and a half years of treatment at Amal. But for months, his father couldn’t get him to treatment because the family lived in a frontline district, Wadi Hanish.
“We were caught in the crossfire; Houthis on one side and resistance on the other. People were sandwiched in between. People are the victims,” said Ali Hassan, Feras’ father. Finally, he and his son moved closer to Amal, leaving the rest of the family behind.
But Feras’ condition deteriorated in the meantime and now’s back at square one. His doctors fear the cancer has spread.
Ahmed al-Makhalfi, who is supervising Feras’ case, said that even after resuming chemotherapy, they can only give him small amounts of medicine because of shortages of supplies.
At the Amal facility, corridors are filled by patients waiting to get treatment because bedspace is now so limited.
“An empty bed is usually available only after a patient passes away,” said Feras’ father. --AP