Yemen quietly slips away, much like its starving children
With a Saudi blockade and a cholera epidemic considered the world’s worst in decades, it’s worth remembering that the conflict in Yemen goes beyond the apparent proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
These are the stark facts, and the only simple ones, about the situation in Yemen: The country has suffered the world’s worst cholera outbreak in modern history and people do not have access to food.
Cholera is spread by contaminated water, which is all that is now available in many parts of the country. More than 2,000 have died. The World Health Organization estimates there will be a million cases by the end of the year.
The lack of food is now endemic. Food prices have soared, the economy has collapsed, and government employees haven’t been paid for nearly a year, which has forced more than 20 million Yemenis, or about 70 per cent of the population, to rely on aid.
This month, a Saudi-led military coalition stopped most of that aid from entering the country by blocking airports, ports and borders. Ostensibly the blockade was to halt the shipment of arms. But illegal smuggling routes ensure the flow of weapons, and it is food, medicine and fuel that are being held back.
The heads of three UN agencies — World Food Program, UNICEF and the World Health Organization — issued a joint statement Thursday saying seven million Yemenis, mainly children, are on the brink of famine.
Children who die of starvation do not cry; they are so weak they quietly slip away, their deaths often unnoticed at first in hospitals overwhelmed by patients.
Which is also an apt description for Yemen’s slow demise.
“It’s not about us — we have no power to stop this war,” says Sadeq Al-Ameen, an aid worker based in Yemen’s capital, about the country’s war-weary population and exhausted frontline aid workers.
“Even if the international community … provides millions of dollars,” says Al-Ameen, “Yemen will not recover unless the war stops.”
And there are those who do not want it to stop.
Describing Yemen simply as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is too easy, and not entirely accurate.
“We’re looking for this simple, overarching narrative and this idea of a proxy war is something people can understand — group X backs these guys and group Y backs these guys,” says Peter Salisbury, author of a forthcoming Chatham House paper on Yemen’s war economy.
“The reality is you’ve got a multiplicity of different groups, each with different agendas working and fighting on the ground against one another.”
This current crisis began in late 2014, when Houthi rebels seized control of the capital from Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government. Hadi had been in power following the “Arab Spring” protests in 2011 and 2012, which ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh after three decades of autocratic rule.
The Houthis, a Shiite Islam group belonging to the Zaydi sect, began 13 years ago in the northern province of Saada as a theological movement. (The group is named after the movement’s founder, Hussein al-Houthi.) Saleh saw the Houthis as a challenge to his rule, and they faced relentless military and economic crackdowns.
The speed with which they took over the capital three years ago surprised many analysts. By early 2015, Hadi had fled to Saudi Arabia and the Houthis had control of the major ministries and continued to amass power.
In an ironic alliance of convenience, they joined forces with Saleh and those from his deposed government who still wielded power, against Hadi’s Saudi-backed forces.
“They’ve gone from literally 25 guys in the mountains 13 years ago to thousands if not tens of thousands of men operating on the ground in control of all these resources,” says Salisbury. “They’re being told, you’re on the back foot and it’s time to give up, which to my mind if you look at their history, their trajectory, it just doesn’t compute.”
The conflict has killed an estimated 10,000 people.
Saudi Arabia’s attack against the Houthis has been relentless — much of it fuelled by the fear of Iran’s alliance with Houthis and the prospect of greater Iranian influence in the region.
But bringing peace to Yemen goes beyond navigating this Saudi-Iranian divide, says Salisbury. It’s about understanding not just the rule of the Houthis, but the overall war economy and reaching out to those who have benefited from the conflict.
“Lots of different groups control lots of different parts of the country and that control allows them to tax trade,” he says. “We end up in this situation where it becomes self-fuelling, where guys who have taken up arms, maybe for ideological reasons, maybe for local politics, now have money and power they didn’t have before the war …They’re not being talked to, so what incentive do they have to give up their arms and newfound resources and power?”
Toronto author and professor Kamal Al-Solaylee, who wrote a memoir about growing up in Sanaa and Aden, says empathy fatigue is another factor that adds to Yemen’s woes.
“I do think Syria has exhausted resources, personal and governmental. I’m not surprised given the extent of the war there,” he says. “But I also think if Yemen preceded Syria, nothing would change. Yemen is just not a country that western nations and peoples think of — hardly on their radar.”
Salisbury agrees that what happens in Yemen does not receive the same scrutiny of military actions elsewhere.
“The lesson the Saudis have learned is they can get away with a great deal when it comes to Yemen,” he says, on the phone from London. “They can really do things that if another country were doing it in another context there would be international outcry, there would be action at the Security Council level, but in this case that’s just not happening because of the value western and other states place on their relationship with Saudi Arabia.”
Aid agencies are warning that Yemen will become the worst humanitarian crisis in decades. On Friday, three Yemeni cities ran out of clean water because of the Saudi blockade of fuel needed for pumping and sanitation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.
The cholera epidemic has surpassed the 2010-2017 Haitian disaster to become the biggest since modern records began in 1949, the Guardian reported.
Al Ameen, who considers himself part of the fortunate minority still being paid for his work inside Sanaa, understands the seemingly intractable political situation, but all he witnesses on the front line of the crisis are the civilian victims.
“It’s so painful to see hopeless families,” he says, in a telephone interview from Sanaa this week. “I’ve met some who are all infected with cholera or other diseases. Can you imagine a father, whose eight children who are infected and he is so poor?”
Al Ameen says medical staff working at public hospitals have worked for months without being paid, out of a sense of duty, but are started to fear for their own families and well-being.
“People are very pessimistic,” Al Ameen says about the mood inside Yemen. “I think we will be neglected slowly by the international community and the world.”
“This article expresses the writer’s opinion and does not concern the policy of the site”