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MSF doctor tells of ‘horror after horror’ in Yemen

Aude Mazoué / France 24 | Thierry Goffeau, project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, spent 10 weeks working with the organisation in Aden, Yemen.

A member of the medical aid organisation Doctors Without Borders has given a stark account of his experiences during a 10-week posting in the city of Aden in Yemen – a country torn apart by months of conflict.


Thierry Goffeau, project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), returned from Aden, Yemen, three days ago, exhausted.

The humanitarian worker was sent to the Arabian Peninsula country in May to try to help people affected since March of this year by the conflict between Houthi rebels and supporters of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

In the midst of the bombings and shooting of the front line – just 400 metres from the MSF hospital in Aden – the full extent of the crisis dawned on him.

It was “horror after horror,” Goffeau told reporters as he gave an account of his experiences at MSF’s Paris headquarters Tuesday.

Despite his fatigue, he wants to tell others what he saw: “It’s part of the mission.”

‘The fighting never stops’

When he first arrived, MSF’s operations in Yemen were relatively “low key”, explained Goffeau, with around 20 patients being treated a day. But then Houthi rebels encircled Aden in the north, south and east of the city.

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Supplies of food, medicine and fuel – the latter essential for keeping water and power running in the city – began to dry up. Meanwhile, violence exploded.

“It was the first time in ten years of missions that I have been immersed in a climate of such violence,” said Goffeau. “Even in Gaza, the Ivory Coast, Somalia or the Central African Republic, I have never seen a situation like that, where the fighting never stops. Truces are never observed for more than two hours. MSF teams work day and night, they are exhausted.

“Daily life is punctuated by cries, tears, blood and death.”

The situation changed again in mid July when pro-Hadi forces, backed by the air power and heavy weapons of a Saudi-led coalition, regained full control of Aden and drove out the Houthi rebels.

Though this allowed food and medical aid to finally arrive, the stream of casualties remained at full flow.

“On July 19, 200 patients arrived at the MSF hospital in Aden in just a few hours, all civilians. There was over a hundred the next day,” recounted Goffeau.

“It is a huge amount – impossible to treat them all properly. As well as caring for the patients, we also have to handle their families who do not understand why their loved ones cannot get treatment immediately. It’s hard to tell families that their son, father or mother will not be treated as their initial diagnosis shows there is no hope for them.”

Fighting inside the hospital

The fighting raging outside often found its way inside the hospital’s walls, said Goffeau.
“It is the first time that we have not been able to ban weapons from inside the hospital,” he said. “The fighters who show up, for the most part high on khat – a plant that is chewed for its stimulating power – leave us no choice. Fighting often broke out in the triage area.”

Obliged to stay neutral, the MSF doctors treated all patients that came to the hospital, regardless of which side of the conflict they were on.

“We regularly treated Houthis,” said Goffeau. “This required special organisational measures in the Aden hospital but never posed a problem.”

Since March, MSF workers in Yemen have treated more than 8,980 war wounded and performed more than 4,010 surgeries. The organisation’s emergency rooms have processed more than 55,000 patients while it has brought in more than 165 tons of humanitarian aid to the facilities it is running and supporting in the country.

Bleak future

Fighting in Aden is now largely over, but the city was left in ruins. Today, shops spared by the carnage are slowly beginning to reopen their doors, cars can once again be seen on the roads thanks to the return in the supply of petrol – but the city remains a dangerous place to be.

"There are still some pockets of resistance by Houthis determined not to surrender. There are also stray bullets from children playing with guns.”

The situation in Aden remains classified as being at the highest level of emergency by the UN.

“The aid being brought in is not sufficient to meet the needs of a population which is lacking everything,” says Laurent Sury MSF’s emergency coordinator in Yemen.

As for the future of the country, Goffeau is hardly more optimistic.

"Allies have united under the circumstances against the Houthis, but this alliance may be short-lived as their interests diverge. It is likely that they will be fighting each other to gain power in the coming months.

“Peace is far from being found."

This article was translated from the original in French.

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