In Yemen, conflict and hunger are at the root of a streamlined Ramadan

In the years before war and hunger disrupted daily life in Yemen, Mohammed Abdullah Yousef used to sit down after a long day of fasting during Ramadan to a large plate of food. His family dined on meat, falafel, beans, fried savory pastries and the occasional store-bought crème caramel.

This year, the Islamic holy month looks different for Mr Yousef, 52, a social studies teacher in the coastal town of Al Mukalla. He, his wife and their five children break their fast with bread, soup and vegetables. Earning the equivalent of $66 a month, he fears his salary sometimes slips out of his hands in less than two weeks, largely to pay grocery bills.

“I'm struggling to make ends meet,” Mr. Yousef said in an interview, describing how even before Ramadan he began skipping meals to stretch his meager wages but could barely afford bus fare to go to work in an elementary school.

Ten years ago, his salary covered his family's needs and more. But conflict, poverty and hunger have affected much of Yemen. As rapid inflation erodes their spending power, middle-class Yemenis like Yousef have found themselves sliding into economic collapse.

Muslims abstain from food and water between dawn and dusk in observance of Ramadan, which is intended to be a time of worship, celebratory gatherings and nighttime parties. But this year has been a desperate opportunity for many across Yemen. The country is the scene of one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, accelerated by a war that began in 2014, which experts say could lead to a deeper disaster.

After two years of relative calm, the conflict in Yemen threatens to escalate again. The Iran-backed Houthi militia, which controls much of the country's north, is attacking ships in the Red Sea, calling it a campaign to pressure Israel over its bombing of Gaza. In response, a U.S.-backed coalition is carrying out air strikes on Yemen, which is increasing insurance costs for shipping goods to the import-dependent country.

More than 18.2 million people in a population of 35 million now need humanitarian assistance, but funding has declined as international donors turn their attention to other crises, including war in Ukraine and an impending famine in Gaza .

In December, the World Food Program suspended food distribution in Houthi-controlled territories, where the vast majority of Yemenis live. The agency, run by the United Nations, said the decision was motivated by “limited funding,” as well as disagreements with Houthi authorities over reducing the number of people served to focus on the neediest families.

Edem Wosornu, director of operations and advocacy at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, warned on March 14 that food insecurity and malnutrition in Yemen have increased in recent months. The progress the agency has seen over the past two years was “in danger of crumbling,” he said.

Spring is generally a relatively abundant harvest season in Yemen, said Peter Hawkins, UNICEF representative in Yemen. But he said he is worried about what will happen in the summer and fall, when the “hunger season” arrives.

Last year, the United Nations asked for $4.3 billion to fund aid operations in Yemen and received less than half of that from donors. This year it made a more modest request for $2.7 billion.

“The lack of food today and tomorrow is not a big deal,” Hawkins said. “The big problem is the cumulative impact, because that's where the poverty starts to set in.” The biggest concern, he said, is that the international community has not yet responded to projected food aid needs for 2024. “And every day they delay,” he added, “every day it's going to get worse.”

Yemenis like Yousef divided their lives into periods before and after the war that divided their country. Before he could afford special purchases for his family like a goat and could even pay for a trip to Mecca for an Islamic pilgrimage, he says.

Then, in 2014, the Houthis – an armed group with a stronghold in Yemen's northern mountains – took advantage of a period of political instability to take control of the country's capital, Sanaa. A military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, backed by U.S. assistance and weapons, began a bombing campaign in 2015 to try to restore the internationally recognized government. The coalition has imposed a de facto naval and air blockade that has limited the flow of food and other goods into Houthi-controlled territory.

As the war continued for years, hundreds of thousands of people died of violence, starvation, and disease. Children were starving – their emaciated bodies documented in stark photographs published by Western news outlets – and the risk of widespread famine loomed.

The Saudi-led coalition eventually faced international pressure to withdraw, and a temporary truce took hold in 2022. That has left the Houthis entrenched in power in the north and Yemenis in a kind of limbo: not peace, but a respite from the worst consequences of the war. The country's already fragile economy, however, has been decimated.

Mr. Yousef's salary has technically increased by more than 50% since the war began, but that increase has evaporated due to inflation, as Yemen's currency becomes increasingly worthless. The dueling central banks of the north and south of the country set different exchange rates, and the black market operates on a third. In 2014, it took about 215 Yemeni riyals to reach 1 dollar; now, where Mr. Yousef lives, there are 1,650.

Al Mukalla is located in southern Yemen, nominally controlled by the internationally recognized government. In Houthi-controlled territories, thousands of state employees, including teachers, have not received their salaries for years.

Consequently, deprivation is a feature of everyday life. Every night, Mr. Yousef's family huddles in one room to sleep because it is the only one with air conditioning to relieve the sweltering heat. Even if he could afford another cooling unit, he said, he couldn't pay the electricity bill to run it.

“We gave up meals and stopped buying things to maintain our dignity and avoid asking others for money,” he said.

Mohammed Omer Mohammed, who has owned a grocery shop in Al Mukalla for three decades, can see the impact on his shop of the collapse in purchasing power. Instead of rice, customers buy subsidized bread. He said he stopped stocking products like Nutella and high-quality canned tuna because his customers could no longer afford them.

In the evenings, Ramadan shoppers still gather at a busy city market, where vendors sell burgers and fresh fruit. But traders said business wasn't what it used to be. Shoppers stop to ask how much things cost, then don't buy anything. Those who buy haggle incessantly over the price.

“Every year it gets worse than the last,” said Abdullah Badwood, a gold trader, who has found that instead of buying gold, many of his clients want to sell.

This Ramadan has been particularly difficult for Hussein Saeed Awadh, 38, a father of three in Al Mukalla. He earns 55,000 Yemeni riyals a month as an Arabic teacher, a salary now worth less than $35. This disappears in a few days while he pays the bills, he said, so in the afternoon he took a second job as a street vendor.

Years ago, Mr Awadh's family broke their Ramadan fast with fresh fruit, pastries and chocolates. Now they drink coffee and dates for dinner and, since he can't pay for more expensive meat, they eat soup with tripe.

A whole chicken would cost more than 5,000 Yemeni riyals, a tenth of his monthly salary. A kilogram of local mango would cost 3,000 riyals; approximately 3,500 imported oranges. All of this is more than many Yemenis can afford. But it's not just food that's out of reach.

Recently, Mr. Awadh discovered that his 6-year-old daughter's teeth had broken because she wasn't getting enough calcium. A four-pound container of milk powder costs 14,000 riyals, or a full week of her teaching salary.

“The doctor prescribed me some medicine and told me to give her milk,” she said. “But I can't afford it.”

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