The mercy flight to Jordan, the first from northern Yemen in three years, also offered a glimmer of hope for faltering diplomatic efforts to broker an end to Saudi Arabia’s five-year war that pushed much of the country to the brink of starvation.
The seven people onboard the flight require urgent treatment for life-threatening conditions, such as kidney transplants, aid officials said. An additional 23 Yemenis, most of them women and children, are expected to follow by the end of the week on flights to Jordan and Egypt.
“This is a very important day,” Lise Grande, the United Nations’ resident coordinator for Yemen, told reporters in Sana'a, the New York Times reported.
The airport in Sana’a has been closed to civilian traffic since 2015, effectively imprisoning thousands of Yemenis requiring urgent or complex medical treatment that the country’s war-ravaged health care system is incapable of providing. Only United Nations flights use the airport.
The majority of those waiting to leave are women and children who have brain tumors or aggressive forms of cancer, or who need organ transplants or reconstructive surgery, the World Health Organization said.
Other aid groups expressed anger that the airlift had taken this long.
“Today’s move comes too late for thousands of Yemenis who died waiting to leave the country for urgent lifesaving care,” said Mohammed Abdi of the Norwegian Refugee Council. “They were handed a death sentence when the Saudi-led coalition blockaded northern Yemen by closing down the airport in Sana’a over three years ago.”
“There is no justification for punishing very sick civilians by blocking them from accessing medical treatment,” he added.
Saudi Arabia and a number of its allies launched a devastating campaign against Yemen in March 2015, with the goal of bringing the government of former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi back to power and eliminating the Yemeni Houthi Ansarullah movement, whose fighters have been helping the Yemeni army significantly in defending the country against invaders since the onset of war.
The US-based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit conflict-research organization, estimates that the war has so far claimed more than 100,000 lives.