Politics & Policy

Yemenis Describe Their Country in Crisis

A boy pushes a wheelbarrow filled with water containers after collecting drinking water from a charity tap amid a cholera outbreak in Sanaa, Yemen,in October 2017. (Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters)
‘Families have nothing to eat; people are eating leaves. There is no urgent effort to help these people.’

Seven-year-old Amal Hussain was photographed for the New York Times, featured in an article titled “The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia’s War” in late October. Her emaciated body is pictured lying on a hospital bed in Aslam, Yemen, the outline of her protruding rib cage visible, grasped by her feeble hands. The doctor caring for Amal is reported as having tugged on the skin of Amal’s fragile arms, saying, “Look. No meat. Only bones.”

One week after the haunting photo was published, Amal died of malnutrition. Her death — which came so suddenly after the world had learned her name and witnessed the shocking severity of the destitution that plagues the country of Yemen — seemed to awaken the distant Western world to the extent of the calamity that the poorest country in the Arab world has been facing for almost four years. The Times called Amal the “Yemen Girl Who Turned the World’s Eyes to Famine.” That, combined with the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, was the catalyst for the extensive media interest in the U.S.-Saudi Arabian alliance.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted 56-41 to end the U.S. involvement in the Saudi Arabian-led war in Yemen in a mainly symbolic blow to the Saudi-U.S. alliance that the president has continuously defended, marking the first time the Senate has ever voted to end an unauthorized war.

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis was created largely by the Saudi-led coalition, which includes the U.S., U.K., and the United Arab Emirates. The Saudi coalition’s air strikes and blockades (the blockades were imposed in 2015 to restrict aid to Houthi-controlled Al-Hudaydah and then even further constricted in response to the Houthi rebels’ launching of a missile at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2017) have been decimating the country for nearly four years in an effort to blunt Iranian influence in the Arabian Peninsula and have caused the starvation and deaths of thousands of children such as Amal.

In an earlier article, I described how the war transpired and how the U.S. became involved. But with the growing coverage of the Yemen crisis, which was a peripheral story to the Khashoggi disappearance, there were noticeably few Yemeni voices given a platform within Western media coverage. Yemeni journalists and aid workers who have been documenting the crisis on social media and through Yemeni publications were rarely afforded the opportunity to report the conditions in their country to American news outlets. Rather, only upon the crisis’s becoming a trending news story in October did American journalists speak to Yemeni civilians or visit Yemen. After perusing social media and past articles, and speaking with American journalists who have cited or referred to the work of Yemeni journalists, officials, and aid workers, I spoke with Yemenis who have lived through the war in their country. Unless the blockades are lifted and airstrikes are halted, they fear that they will continue to watch the numbers of their fellow Yemenis suffering from disease, malnutrition, and death increase as the human toll of the war grows more grim.

According to the United Nations, 14 million people, or half of the population, are in desperate need of medical and nutritional aid. UNICEF estimates that 400,000 children are severely malnourished, and 8 million don’t have access to basic water or hygiene services.

In 2015, Fatik al-Rodaini witnessed directly the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding in his country, so he made a career switch from journalism and founded a humanitarian nonprofit to provide urgent assistance such as food, medicine, blankets, and clothes. The nonprofit, Mona Relief, has reached over 43,000 families, but Fatik tells me the number of people in need only increases with each passing day.

“Since it was established in 2015, Mona Relief has started focusing on the suffering of IDPs (internally displaced persons) who fled their own villages from Saada and Hajjah governorates in northern Yemen to the capital Sanaa and Amran governorates due to the ongoing fighting there,” he tells me. According to the U.N., there are over 2 million IDPs in Yemen, and nearly 90 percent of them have been displaced for more than a year since the war began.

Fatik interacts with children like Amal every day — so gaunt from malnutrition that they are fragile to the touch, their vertebrae visible, their skin so gossamer-thin that their bones look as if they’d pierce it with any movement. He showed me pictures of the children he helps, and many of them are indistinguishable from the New York Times photo.

Child who later died from malnutrition in Aslam, a small city within Hajjah, Yemen. Courtesy of Fatik al-Roudaini.

“I have seen people eating from the garbage; I have seen people dying due to the hunger or diseases,” he says. “Imagine that people in my country didn’t receive their monthly salaries since October 2016. How could they live without money?”

Many of the country’s workers stopped receiving their salaries in 2016 due to the liquidity crisis at the Central Bank of Yemen, making food and medicine unaffordable for most Yemenis. In 2016, public-sector employees (30 percent of families) did not receive pay for half of 2016 and have received their salaries only intermittently since. The rest of Yemenis who aren’t public servants stopped receiving regular pay because of the collapse of all industries due to the war. The crisis has been compounded by the Saudi-led coalition’s naval and air blockade, so that civilians have been deprived of regular food and medicine since March 2015.

“The war has resulted in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. . . . The impact of the war will continue for a long time, and the country will not recover very soon,” Fatik says.

Ibrahim Mitrz, a Yemeni freelance journalist in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital and largest city, has been reporting on the conflict since its advent. He tells me that Yemen is under siege at all hours. He has never seen his country face such destitution and disease.

“Families have nothing to eat; people are eating leaves. There is no urgent effort to help these people,” he tells me.

Nothing is spared from the coalition air strikes, he says. Not even weddings.

In April, an air strike killed more than 20 people at a wedding party, including the groom. One of the most circulated videos after the attack showed a young boy who had survived, clinging to his dead father’s shirt, crying “No, no, no.”

While the Saudi-led coalition has caused most of the damage to Yemen by its constant bombardment and blockades, the Houthi rebels in control of northern Yemen may also be guilty of war crimes, according to a U.N. report released in late August. One of the crimes they were accused of, among accusations of torturing detainees and blocking access to humanitarian agencies, was recruiting children as young as eight to be soldiers.

Yemenis also are facing epidemics, specifically cholera and diphtheria. The cholera epidemic is the worst in the world, according to the World Health Organization, with roughly 10,000 suspected cases reported each week. Cholera, if left untreated, can kill a child within hours. Because nearly 2 million children already are malnourished, they are especially vulnerable to disease.

“It is shameful to talk about the deaths caused by cholera in the 21st century,” Dr. Youssef Al-Haderi, the official spokesman of the rebel-held Ministry of Health, tells me. “But in Yemen, we talk about deaths caused by cholera in the thousands.”

Cholera is spread by consuming unsafe water or food that is contaminated by feces. Yemen, already resource-poor, has a shortage of both clean water and food due to the coalition blockades. According to research done by Martha Mundy at the London School of Economics, in the first year and a half of the coalition bombing campaign, there was strong evidence that the Saudi-led coalition was aiming to “destroy food production and distribution.”

“When the [coalition] attacked, they [struck] water wells that feed Yemenis with clean drinking water, so Yemenis had to seek alternatives. They used any water sources they could find,” Al-Haderi says.

Diphtheria, an easily preventable infection of the nose and throat that’s highly contagious and life-threatening if left untreated, disappeared in Yemen in 1994 but reappeared in October 2017. Youssef notes that most of the deaths caused by diphtheria are of children.

The toll the war has taken on the psychological health of Yemenis is also significant. “The sound of missiles and aircraft bombs has caused a disturbing rise in psychological health problems, especially in women and children,” Youssef tells me. The psychological trauma inflicted by the war is so extreme that pregnant women suffer miscarriages, and often the psychiatric medication they take to mitigate the psychological trauma also causes miscarriage. Pregnant women suffer from malnutrition like the rest of the country and often give birth to malnourished babies.

Despite the urgent need for medical aid, most Yemenis can’t afford medication or hospital treatment, and prices of medicines have risen as the Yemeni currency has lost its value. “Many people cannot go to hospitals for several reasons, the most important of which is the lack of financial ability,” Youssef says.

“Imagine a country that is already poor from before the aggression and siege, and then came the barbaric siege that destroyed everything, and the situation is still ongoing,” Youssef laments. “Imagine what this does to a poor country when the richest and most powerful countries in the world are fighting and besieging Yemen.”

The coalition has provided billions of dollars in aid to Yemen in response to the mounting criticism Saudi Arabia and its allies have received due to the high number of civilian deaths from the air strikes and malnutrition. While all aid is welcome because of the widespread need, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Guardian that “there was never a humanitarian solution for any humanitarian crisis.”

“All of the country’s infrastructure is destroyed,” Fatik tells me. “We have no clean water, no health services and no electricity. We have no life at all.”

Marlo Safi — Marlo Safi is a Collegiate Network Fellow with National Review.

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