Three days in a Yemeni cholera camp

Since the beginning of the cholera outbreak, Yemen has seen close to 1.5 million cases – one of them was my mother.

Cholera Yemen
A nurse attends to a cholera-infected patient at treatment centre in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen on October 8, 2017 [File: Reuters/Abduljabbar Zeyad]

On April 18, I was sitting on a small chair next to bed number seven at the end of a stuffy hospital ward in Hodeidah, Yemen’s key port city, thinking I was in the midst of a scene from a horror film.

I felt suffocating pain in my chest as I looked at my sleeping mother. She had come down with cholera.

As the woman in the nearby bed moved, I saw a hole in the middle of it. I thought it was broken until I realised each bed in the ward was like this and under each hole there was a bucket, which periodically was being emptied by hospital staff.

Everything had happened very quickly. I was in Sanaa when my mother called in the evening to tell me that she had had severe diarrhoea. She had taken medicine but had not felt better. In the early hours of the next day, my brothers called as well to tell me that my mother’s condition had deteriorated considerably and that they had taken her to a private hospital.

Suspecting that she was infected with cholera, the hospital officials had refused to admit her and had sent her to the only medical facility that treated cholera patients: Al-Thawra Hospital.

I rushed back to Hodeidah. I was racing against death to see my mother. It took seven hours of travel by land to get back to my city. The war has closed off almost all routes. Had airports worked, it would have taken me half an hour.

At noon, I arrived and went straight to the hospital. At first, the guards did not allow me to enter because visits were not permitted at that time, but after listening to my tearful appeals, they let me in. They asked me to disinfect my hands in a chlorine tank and took me to the women’s cholera ward.


Once inside, I searched anxiously the faces of the women in the ward looking for my mother. I found her in the last bed at the end of the ward, looking extremely pale.

My mother received me in tears. She seemed devastated. “This is frightening. I have lost the ability to go to the bathroom. I am like a child. I cannot control myself,” she said, with trembling lips.

I did not know much about cholera, except that it could be a fatal disease. When it first appeared in my city in 2016, we were told to be careful when washing fruits and vegetables and disinfect water tanks as often as possible. But as the war went on, destroying infrastructure, disrupting basic services and food provision, the disease spread and struck an increasing number of people.

Patients were initially kept in tents separate from the hospital, but as cases multiplied the hospital authorities had to transform the makeshift camp into a permanent ward. Since the beginning of the outbreak, Yemen has seen close to 1.5 million suspected cholera cases; in my city Hodeidah, there have been some 46,900 cases since the beginning of the year – one of them my own mother.

At first, she refused to let me stay with her at the ward, fearing that I would get infected. She was afraid that my pregnancy was making me more susceptible. She pointed to a pregnant woman called Mariam who was also getting treated at the ward; she could not take a full dose of medicine and, as a result, her health condition was deteriorating.

I asked the nurses how long a cholera patient would stay in the ward. They said that it ranged from three to 10 days, depending on the immunity of the patient, which is the weakest in pregnant women and children.

I decided to take the risk anyway and sit with my mother every day. My sister and I took shifts: I was there during the day and she was staying overnight.

It was painful to watch all these women struggle against this vile disease. It was eating away not only at their bodies but also at their spirit. On the third day, my mother’s condition deteriorated after she refused to eat and take the medicine.

Overnight, she had seen Mariam, who was nine months pregnant, go into convulsions and a coma. It was with great difficulty that doctors and nurses were able to save her and stabilise her condition. My sister told me that my mother’s eyes had been fixated on the pregnant woman’s body as she feared she may be living her last moments.

It was as if my mother’s fate was linked to Mariam’s. I prayed for her; I felt her survival meant the survival of my mother.

By the evening, Mariam had improved significantly and was able to get out of bed. Her belly was very large and as she stood up, she swayed a bit but was able to keep her balance and go to the toilet by herself.

It was the first time in my life that I saw a miracle happen. My mother was so happy; she even cried when she saw Mariam stand up.

The people who made that miracle happen were the medical staff, who despite all the difficulties and dangers of their work, did their jobs with great devotion. The ward was staffed 24 hours a day, with nurses  doing 12-hour shifts for as little as $250 a month – a meagre remuneration for their heroic effort and the high risk of contracting a deadly disease they were exposed to on a daily basis. During the few days I spent at the ward, their work did not seem to slow down; they were admitting at least five people suspected of having cholera every day.

I was extremely happy when the next day the doctors finally told us that my mother has recovered enough to be able to go home. It was a great relief to finally be able to leave this scene of horror at the cholera ward.

War has devastated us and left us many paths to death, but only a narrow one to life. We do not wish onto anyone the pain that we have felt, but we do hope that those who have started this war will meet the fate they deserve for causing so much suffering and death to innocent men, women and children.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.