By Soraya Dali-Balta and Mazin Salloom, IFRC

For the past weeks, Yemen has been enduring a bloody round of violence which has so far claimed the lives of hundreds of people and has caused major destruction in the country. The violence also contributed to massive waves of displacement as Yemenis and foreigners alike fled their homes in search for safer regions in the country. This reality caused a high and increasing dependency on humanitarian services. Amid this complicated and deteriorating situation, the Yemen Red Crescent Society’s volunteers and staff have been assisting communities affected by the recent wave of violence since day one. And despite the human and material losses it has suffered so far, the National Society continues to be on the frontlines to deliver rescue and relief services through its 17 active branches and a network of more than 1,000 volunteers.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies interviewed the Secretary General of the Yemen Red Crescent Society, Mr Fuad Al-Makhthy, to get a closer look at the current situation in Yemen and at the efforts of the National Society since the onset of the crisis.

When did the Yemen Red Crescent Society launch its intervention during the latest round of violence and what were the first adopted steps?

The Yemen Red Crescent Society has been continuously responding to emergencies and has been present on ground in different previous conflicts, including during military operations in the south and in several other Yemeni regions. But the efforts of the National Society were scaled up during the latest airstrikes, especially in assisting the wounded and in evacuating and retrieving bodies, and in providing First Aid trainings.

How was the plan of intervention reached and what does it entail?

The Yemen Red Crescent Society has been working for months, in cooperation with our partners in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), to put in place different scenarios for intervention, depending on the developments on ground and on the changing circumstances of the country’s conflict, as part of the Yemen Red Crescent Society’s contingency plan. Before the airstrikes, the scenarios focused on dealing with cases of popular protests and sit-ins. The plan was for Yemen Red Crescent Society teams to deploy near these gatherings to intervene in case of injuries and to provide First Aid and rescue assistance. And now with the military operation affecting several Yemeni cities, the intervention of the Yemen Red Crescent Society teams is mainly linked to providing safe access and protecting the lives of volunteers, as well as coordinating with feuding parties to ensure this safe access which enables us to rescue the wounded and transport them to hospitals, in addition to recovering bodies. We are also providing humanitarian assistance, such as distributing food portions and finding shelters for the displaced who evacuated Yemeni regions where heavy clashes are taking place.

What are the priorities of the volunteers and staff of the Yemen Red Crescent Society during this intervention?

Our top priority is saving the lives of the wounded through providing First Aid services, in addition to recovering the bodies of those who lost their lives in the violence, and distributing humanitarian assistance including shelter kits and food aid to the displaced. We are also helping health authorities in the country in what relates to blood donations and in recruiting volunteers to fill in the gaps in medical teams at hospitals. This was carried out after conducting an overall assessment of the needs and gaps, and after consulting with our partners working on ground to develop this full-scale response which is being implemented by our volunteers and by Yemen Red Crescent Society branches across the country.

Right now, there are 17 National Society branches providing humanitarian aid and responding to needs in the country. There are about 12,000 volunteers working with the Yemen Red Crescent Society, among whom 1,000 are active. Some volunteers are even contributing in regions they have recently relocated to after fleeing their hometowns. The Yemen Red Crescent Society also has 186 ambulances responding to all types of cases, and we are working on scaling up the response circle through communicating and networking with local communities to ensure a rapid response to the rising needs in the upcoming stage, which will also include providing psycho-social support and First Aid services. This will also increase the number volunteers working with the Yemen Red Crescent Society.

What are the challenges and difficulties facing the Yemen Red Crescent Society?

Being part of the Yemeni community, the National Society has been facing numerous difficulties. These include challenges faced in the field, such having safe access to reach the victims of the violence, ensuring respect of the Red Crescent emblem and of ambulances, and the difficulty of coordinating to allow relief convoys to enter destined areas. We are also facing difficulties related to logistics caused by the constant power cuts in the country, the lack of fuel to operate ambulances and the National Society’s vehicles and its increasing price in the black market, the absence of generators, the scarcity of relief supplies and their unavailability in conflict areas, in addition to a budget deficit which would allow the Yemen Red Crescent Society to continue functioning and exchanging information between the headquarters and the different branches.

How do you evaluate the capacities of your National Society and its ability to respond to the rising challenges during the current crisis? And what are you National Society’s needs?

The current crisis didn’t start few weeks ago, but it has been ongoing since 2014. The protracted crisis has exhausted the resources of the Yemen Red Crescent Society such as its emergency stock, its First Aid kits, and the financial and logistic capacities of the headquarters and of the different branches. But on the other hand, the Yemen Red Crescent Society has gained lots of expertise in emergency response and is now more accepted by the local community and by the feuding parties in the country.

The needs, however, are many because of the gravity of the humanitarian crisis and because of the important role played by the Yemen Red Crescent Society. Our needs include basic food aid, First Aid kits, food for children, medicines, medical equipment, water, in addition to boosting the financial and logistic capacities of the National Society.

Since the onset of the latest crisis, several volunteers were killed while carrying out their humanitarian mission while other have been wounded. What procedures are adopted by the National Society to protect the volunteers?

The Yemen Red Crescent Society implements rules and procedures for protecting volunteers and for ensuring safe access for emergency intervention teams which are adopted by the ICRC, but we are facing different scenarios in the current conflict in Yemen. The death and injury of several volunteers have necessitated a re-evaluation of these procedures and the adoption of locally-tailored ones covering safe access. We worked on developing these measures with the support of the ICRC, the IFRC and other National Societies who have similar experiences in this regard, mainly the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

What have been the losses suffered by the Yemen Red Crescent Society since the onset of the latest crisis?

Three volunteers lost their lives in the field, while two other were wounded. As for the material losses, two ambulances were severely damaged in the city of Aden and Ad Dali’ governorate for coming under fire and for being involved in a traffic accident while on mission. The Aden branch of the National Society also suffered damages because of the ongoing fighting in the city.

With whom are you coordination and in which areas of work?

The main partners of the Yemen Red Crescent Society in this operation are within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, mainly the ICRC and the IFRC, along with several other partner National Societies like the Danish Red Cross, the German Red Cross, the Norwegian Red Cross, the British Red Cross and the French Red Cross. With our partners in the Movement, the collaboration is focused on capacity building, supporting the contingency plan, boosting support for ambulatory kits, and conducting trainings on rescue and relief, on protection and on the International Humanitarian Law.

For months, the IFRC and the ICRC have been working relentlessly to build the capacities of the Yemen Red Crescent Society and to put in place contingency plans and scenarios for intervention. They have also replenished the stocks of the National Society through providing relief kits, and have supported the emergency intervention teams, insured volunteers, provided safe access, and trained volunteers on First Aid and on Disaster Management. Our work and collaboration are continuous and consolidated in the Movement’s operations room in Yemen.

And we are also collaborating with partners outside the Movement like the World Food Programme, UNICEF, UN-OCHA, the UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, in addition to several governmental bodies like the Ministry of Public Health and Population and the Ministry of Interior in assessing the needs of the victims and the displaced and in offering different types of support to them. As for governmental bodies, the coordination with them is very important as National Societies complement their work in times of crises and emergencies.

What is your message to governmental and other concerned non-governmental bodies to facilitate your humanitarian work?

The work of the Red Crescent and Red Cross societies during emergencies depends very much on respecting the emblems and ensuring safe access for intervention teams without any obstacles to enable them to provide the needed humanitarian assistance. As such, we call on all parties involved in the conflict as well as on Yemeni authorities to respect the work of emergency teams and to respect the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems. We also urge them to prevent any targeting, whether directly or indirectly, of Red Crescent fleets. Any attacks against emergency teams will render more difficult our job to help the victims.