Taiz leprosy colony offers Yemeni ‘outcasts’ a home

Ostracised by their communities, leprosy sufferers are the ‘silent victims’ of the Saudi-led war on Yemen, medics say.

Ostracised by their communities, leprosy sufferers are the 'silent victims' of the Saudi-led war on Yemen, medics say [Mohammed Al-Rumim/Al Jazeera]
Ostracised by their communities, leprosy sufferers are the 'silent victims' of the Saudi-led war on Yemen, medics say [Mohammed Al-Rumim/Al Jazeera]

Qasim al-Salahi can’t remember the last time he had a hot meal to eat.

“My young sons go out every night and rummage through people’s rubbish,” he says, his bones protruding through his skeletal frame.

“On a good day, they’ll come back with something edible … but on a bad day, the family has to make do with mouldy bread or whatever leftovers they find lying around.”

Before Yemen‘s civil war erupted in early 2015, the 56-year-old could rely on his extended family and tribe for support. But since being diagnosed with leprosy, such bonds have begun to fray with the vicious conflict testing centuries-old Yemeni traditions.

Many leprosy sufferers told Al Jazeera they had been banished from their villages and towns, ostracised for carrying an ancient disease incorrectly associated with sin.

After being driven from his home, Qasim said he moved hundreds of kilometres from his rural village in the country’s north, to the western province of Taiz, one of the few areas in war-ravaged Yemen where life-saving medication and treatment was available.

But after he relocated to a leper colony in Taiz’s Madinat al-Nour neighbourhood, his home and everything in it was destroyed by Houthi rebels fighting government forces backed by Saudi Arabia. 

“I lost all my possessions. I lost all my money. I lost everything,” said Qasim.

Everyone is a victim of this war, but lepers are one of the many silent victims. They're isolated, abandoned by their families and have to endure an appalling end of life care.

Dr Abdul Rahim al-Samee, head of Taiz's main health office

‘Abandoned by everyone’

The conflict in Yemen, now entering its third year, has had a devastating impact on ordinary Yemenis.

Qasim al-Salahi says he blames the Yemeni government and Saudi-led coalition for his plight [Mohammed Al-Rumim/Al Jazeera]

Fighting has killed at least 10,000 people, wounded tens of thousands of others and forced more than one million from their homes.

The situation has worsened since November, with a de facto blockade leaving more than 10 million people – a number greater than the entire population of Sweden – requiring immediate assistance to save or sustain their lives.

“Everyone is a victim of this war,” Abdul Rahim al-Samee, the director of the National Leprosy Elimination Programme and head of Taiz’s main health office, told Al Jazeera.

“But lepers are one of the many silent victims. They’re isolated, abandoned by their families and have to endure an appalling end of life care.”

‘I have nothing’

Leprosy is a chronic infectious disease that affects the skin, nerves outside the brain and spinal cord, as well as the mucous membranes of the nose, eyes and throat.

The social stigma attached to it goes back centuries, cutting across different cultures.

With symptoms taking up to five years to appear, the disease develops slowly and painfully. 

But leprosy is entirely curable today, thanks to a treatment called multi-drug therapy.

In Yemen, at least 367 cases were reported in 2016, up from 255 the year before, according to the World Health Organization.

Scores of emaciated patients, accompanied by their caretakers, have sought treatment at Taiz’s Dermatology and Venereology hospital.

However, a chronic lack of funding has left many complaining of receiving substandard care.

“I don’t have food, water, electricity, fuel, cooking gas. Nothing. I have nothing,” said 65-year-old Museed al-Firasi, a leprosy sufferer.

“The only water I get is rain water or a mere 20 litres after walking a long distance to collect it.”

Health hazards

With clean drinking water becoming harder to find, and the healthcare system in an increasingly precarious state, the danger of disease looms large over millions of Yemenis.

Already, humanitarian groups have told Al Jazeera they are “powerless” to stop a cholera epidemic, which has become the largest and fastest-spreading outbreak of the disease in modern history.

More than one million cholera cases have been reported, and at least 2,000 people have died, according to the United Nations.

In addition, there have been outbreaks of diphtheria, a disease that was once nearly eradicated worldwide.

Aid agencies told Al Jazeera they were struggling to deliver relief packages to large parts of Taiz, a front line in the fight between the Houthis and government forces, with the rebels preventing the delivery of drugs and medical supplies to areas not under their control.

The vast majority of Taiz’s hospitals and medical institutions have also been forced to close amid the war.

The situation is “extremely challenging”, said Fatik al-Rodaini, a Yemeni journalist-turned-charity worker at Mona Relief, an aid group that operates in hard-to-reach areas of the country.

“It’s near impossible [for international organisations] to get permission from both sides – the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition – to visit some of the worst-affected areas,” he said.

“I have a strong team in the field who have never failed a project, but even when we enter crisis centres, our work is immediately hampered by authorities who want to interfere in the distribution of aid.

“I’ve personally been arrested on several occasions in the governorates of Hudaida and Mahwit. It’s a real nightmare”.

‘Every day I suffer’

The humanitarian situation has been further compounded by a decision to shift the central bank out of the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, to the southern port city of Aden, after allegations emerged that the Houthis had looted funds to pay for their war effort – a charge the rebels deny.

The government stopped funding the public health department, resulting in many doctors and hospital staff, and around 1.2 million civil servants, not receiving their salaries.

“My children haven’t been paid in over a year,” said Dawood al-Raimi, a leprosy sufferer.

Preventable illnesses and deaths have increased staggeringly, with patients unable to afford their treatment.

“Every day I suffer. All I want is food and to be treated,” said Dawood.

“I need help, but nobody is willing to give it”.

Follow Al Jazeera’s Faisal Edroos on Twitter: @FaisalEdroos 

Dawood al-Raimi says if it weren’t for the local community and charities, he wouldn’t be receiving life-saving medication [Mohammed Al-Rumim/Al Jazeera]

Source: Al Jazeera

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