The Infernal War in Yemen
Written by Mona Zaid
It’s the war from hell, the savage one that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, along with seven other Middle Eastern and North African states, have been waging in Yemen since March 2015, with fulsome support from the Pentagon and American weapons galore. It’s got everything.
Dead children in the dozens, a never-ending air campaign that pays scant heed to civilians, famine, cholera, you name it. No wonder it’s facing mounting criticism in Congress and from human rights groups.
More than 22 million out of Yemen’s total population of 29 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the the U.N. Nearly 18 million of them do not know where their next meal will come from.
Already, more than 8 million people are “facing pre-famine conditions, meaning they are entirely reliant on external aid for survival,” says Mark Lowcock, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief. That number is likely to reach 14 million – half the country’s population – as the effects of long-term malnutrition and compromised immune systems set in.
The situation is “catastrophic,” says Caroline Seguin, program manager in Yemen for Doctors Without Borders (or MSF, the abbreviation for the organization’s French name Médecins Sans Frontières.)
Youth are especially hard hit,according to the U.N., about 80 percent of Yemenis under the age of 18 are facing threats to their health and survival.
“It’s a living hell for its citizens and their children – honestly,” says Sherin Varkey, deputy representative of the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Yemen.
Imagine if half of the 28.3 million people in Texas were on the brink of dying of hunger. Or if no one in the Netherlands and Norway had access to safe drinking water, food and shelter, that is the scale of suffering in Yemen.
Even before the war, Yemen was “invisible” to much of the world. It was already the poorest country in the Middle East, overshadowed by the other political, economic or cultural giants in the region, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. In an oil rich region, it didn’t have much reserves to offer. As this crisis has unfolded, the U.N. and human rights groups have accused the Saudi-led coalition of committing war crimes that have killed or injured more than 17,000 civilians.
Coalition airstrikes have destroyed civilian buildings, including homes, schools and hospitals.
The war has destroyed Yemen’s already fragile economy. About 1.25 million public servants have not received salaries consistently or at all since August 2016. Not only has this affected their ability to provide for their families, but it’s also contributed to a breakdown of essential services like water, sanitation, health care and education, putting additional pressures on humanitarian organizations to compensate.
Prior to the war, Yemen imported 80 to 90 percent of its staple foods and large amounts of fuel, but blockades have delayed and limited delivery, making these essential goods more expensive and harder to obtain, and hyperinflation has undermined people’s purchasing power. Before the crisis, one U.S. dollar was worth 215 Yemeni rial.
This means that even when food and other critical supplies, like fuel, are available, people can’t afford to buy them, all these factors are pushing Yemen to the precipice of the “worst famine [the world has seen] in 100 years,” according to the U.N.
American also arms have continued to flow to Saudi Arabia, while its warplanes rely on U.S. Air Force tankers for mid-air refueling (88 million pounds of fuel as of this January according to a Central Command spokeswoman), while the Saudi military has received regular intelligence information and targeting advice from the Pentagon since the war began. And with the advent of Donald Trump, such military involvement has only deepened: U.S. Special Operations forces are now on the Saudi-Yemen border, helping to find and attack Houthi redoubts.
“What is very worrying is that with the economic crisis, people have much more difficulty accessing hospitals,” says Seguin of Doctors Without Borders. “Just to pay for a taxi or a bus – a lot of people cannot afford this.”
People are borrowing money or cutting costs in other areas to save up for a hospital visit — both for transportation and medical fees.
Bombed roads and bridges are also cutting off people’s access to emergency health services, this has been especially dangerous for pregnant women, some of whom have suffered birth complications as a result of the delay when they otherwise would’ve had healthy births.
Collapsed health systems and infrastructure have also increased the risk of disease outbreaks. Last year, there were more than 1 million reported cases of cholera – a waterborne disease spread by poor water treatment, sanitation and hygiene.
The U.N. said it was the worst cholera outbreak in history, more than 4 tons of oral cholera vaccines arrived in Yemen as part of the World Health Organization and Yemeni government’s effort to combat a recent resurgence of the disease.
Aid workers are working as fast as they can to address the needs but just can’t keep up.
“I think what needs to be really clear to everyone is humanitarian aid is not enough to stave off the impending famine.”
That country, the Arab world’s poorest, has long relied on imports for a staggering 85% of its food, fuel, and medicine, so when prices soared, famine spread, while hunger and malnutrition skyrocketed. Nearly 18 million Yemenis now rely on emergency food aid to survive: that’s an unbelievable 80% of the population. According to the World Bank, “8.4 million more are on the brink of famine.” In December 2017, following a barrage of bad publicity, the Saudi-Emirati blockade was eased marginally, but it had already set in motion a spiral of death.
The blockade also contributed to a cholera epidemic, which the shortage of medicines only exacerbated. According to a World Health Organization report, between April 2017 and July 2018, there were more than 1.1 million cholera cases there. At least 2,310 people died from the disease, most of them children. It is believed to be the worst cholera outbreak since statistics began to be compiled in 1949. At 800,000 cases between 2010 and 2017, Haiti held the previous record, one that the Yemenis surpassed within half a year of the first cases appearing.
The prime contributors to the epidemic: drinking water contaminated by rotting garbage (uncollected because of the war), devastated sewage systems, and water filtration plants that stopped running .
One thing is obvious: U.S. policy in Yemen won’t achieve its declared goals of defeating terrorism and rolling back Iran.
Initiatives to stop the war that are not holistic and don’t address the root causes are not only short-term but are also becoming part of the problem, with valuable time and resources wasted on futile endeavors that only serve to prolong the conflict.
“A cessation of hostilities and vigorous resumption of a political track will help ease the humanitarian crisis as well,”. “It is time to end this conflict, replace conflict with compromise, and allow the Yemeni people to heal through peace and reconstruction.”
Rasha Jarhum says she welcomes international calls for a cease-fire, but she’s skeptical they’re anything more than “false hope.”
“We’ve seen [these calls] before in Syria and other countries in the region,” she says, “and they’ve failed.”