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Yemen: Love lost between neighbours forced to share food rations

A shortage of official food parcels mean that locals have been forced to share rations, leading in some cases to conflict
Yemenis receive humanitarian aid provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on 1 June 2021 (AFP)
By MEE correspondent in Taiz, Yemen

For millions of Yemenis, the delivery of food aid from NGOs at the end of each month is the most important date on the calendar.

International aid agencies and UN-linked organisations have for seven years played a critical role in attempting to stave off mass starvation in Yemen, as conflict exacerbated the situation in the already food insecure country.

In some areas of Yemen, however, the distribution of food packages has ended up causing serious disputes among neighbours, friends and families.

Abdu al-Zazai had been receiving food aid from the World Food Programme (WFP) for more than a year.

'While the food distribution was ongoing, we were fighting and this isn’t the first time as usually such fighting happens over the food basket'

- Abdu al-Zazai

At the end of January 2022, he went to receive his food aid from a distribution point in his village in the south of Taiz province, as he did every month. This time, however, things didn't go to plan.

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“WFP provides one food basket for two families and last month my neighbour took the whole 50kg bag of wheat flour and we only divided the cooking oil, beans and sugar," he told Middle East Eye.

"So I was supposed to take the wheat flour this month - but he refused."

The argument spiralled into violence. Abdu's neighbour struck him in the face with a poleaxe, leaving him with serious injuries around his right eye and nose.

In response, Abdu took a stone and threw it at the back of his neighbour, injuring him in return. Both were taken to a hospital and then to prison.

“While the food distribution was ongoing, we were fighting and this isn’t the first time, as usually such fighting happens over the food basket,” Abdu added.

“It is WFP who is responsible for monthly fighting among people over the food baskets, as they create this fighting by the role of sharing food baskets.”

Funding shortages

An estimated 80 percent of Yemen's population of 29 million people require some form of humanitarian or protection assistance, including 14.3 million who are in acute need, according to UNOCHA.

The WFP says despite ongoing humanitarian assistance, 16.2 million Yemenis are food insecure. In 2021, WFP aimed to provide 13 million people with emergency food and nutrition assistance with 100 percent rations across Yemen.

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However, a source in WFP told MEE on condition of anonymity, there was a serious lack of funding and they couldn’t provide all that was needed. In December the organisation announced cuts in its assistance budget for eight million people.

“We don’t ask families to share food baskets and if this happens by local partners in some areas, people should raise complaints to us and we will solve that," he explained.

Interviewed while in prison, Abdu said he regretted what had happened, saying he lost control of himself and fought with someone who had been a good neighbour to him.

He ultimately blamed WFP for putting him and his neighbour in a situation where they have to share food baskets.

“I hope that WFP either organises its work and stops sharing food baskets or stops providing people with food baskets [altogether], as there is monthly fighting and the cost of that fighting is more expensive than the food basket,” he said.

The fighting eventually cost him his eye and he paid around 100,000YR ($100) for ongoing treatment and costs in prison.

“Also I lost one of the best neighbours," he added.

Increasing conflict over food

Last month, the UN said Yemen would need $3.9bn for 2022 in order to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

The body said funding for Yemen had been decreasing in recent years, with last year's response plan only funded at 58 percent.

The UN has estimated that the war in the country had killed 377,000 people by the end of 2021, both through fighting as well as hunger and disease, and that aid agencies were struggling.

Hamid al-Shawesh, a soldier in one of the prisons in Taiz province, confirmed that fights over food baskets were becoming increasingly common at the end of each month.

'The hearts of people were changed after the intervention of [aid] organisations and the solidarity disappeared and envy replaced it'

- Yasser al-Zazai

“This problem has been increasing and no one can solve it as the organisations keep silent about such problems, and usually needy people aren’t educated enough,” he told MEE.

“What is heartbreaking is that they are needy people and they fight over food for their families.”

Al-Shawesh said that many Yemenis were in need of food baskets but he felt there was a problem in the way of distribution and that needed resolving 

Yasser al-Zazai, who fought Abdu over the food basket, confirmed that Abdu was one of his neighbours that he'd chosen to share the food basket with, but fighting had eventually broken out as a result of a misunderstanding.

“I believe that it is better if WFP and all other organisations stop food distribution, as they give us some food and leave us to fight over it,” Yasser told MEE.

He said that monthly fighting over the aid packages was breaking down the sense of solidarity and collective suffering that had existed during the war prior to the international organisations getting involved.

“The hearts of people were changed after the intervention of [aid] organisations and the solidarity disappeared and envy replaced it,” he said.

Yasser said his relationship with Abdu would recover and hoped their spat would serve as a lesson for other people who were still fighting over food baskets.

“The food baskets will go but our neighbours will remain forever, so we should keep a good relationship with neighbours and relatives and not allow the food basket to create disagreements," he said.

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