The Yemen civil conflict, according to the United Nations, is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. There are signs the international community is awakening to the necessity of dealing seriously with this vastly underreported tragedy.
Sadly, many other countries have fueled that civil war, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and United States on one side and Iran on the other. Is international public opinion forcing them to step back?
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. It may also signal a possible beginning of serious efforts to end the war in Yemen.
The Human Toll in Yemen
The grim statistics, incomplete as they may be, have been widely reported. The war between the government and the rebel Houthis, who had captured most of Yemen by late 2014, escalated significantly a few months later. The Saudi-organized coalition including the U.A.E intervened on the ground in an attempt to restore Yemen’s legitimate government. Its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, escaped to Saudi Arabia last year and remains isolated there.
Official U.N. estimates are that there have been 10,000 casualties in Yemen since the civil war began. Other projections are that the death toll is more in the range of 50,000. Often overlooked: those in a country of 29 million who have died of starvation because food imports have been limited and croplands devastated in the fighting for which there seems to be no end. Yemen is also suffering the world’s worst cholera crisis, fatal to thousands in its three-and-a-half year-old civil war.
The Houthis have been driven out of south Yemen, largely by a combination of ISIS and other shifting coalitions of dissident groups with some Saudi support. But, for now, they hold the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, the country’s only entry point for vitally needed food and medical supplies. Fighting there continues, as anti-Houthi forces seek to expel them from the port city. The Houthis still control Yemen’s capital city, Sanaa.
Unimaginable carnage continues in Hodeidah. A medical worker described on Monday (November 12), how patients fled in panic as Saudi warplanes rained bullets and shrapnel on the metal roof of the main hospital:
“I saw a patient carrying another patient. It looked like a mother and daughter. The mother was skin and bones. She was malnourished, a typical Yemeni mother. Nonetheless, she was managing to carry her 15- or 16-year-old-daughter in her arms. Her daughter was crying. I knew the daughter had just had surgery because she was in a blue surgical robe. There are no words to describe how I felt at this moment.
“I also saw a man walking as fast he could carrying a bag of his own urine. He was still attached to a urinary catheter while making his escape. There were many children, too. Some parents were trying to carry them. I saw 10 or 12 youngsters among everyone else trying to flee on foot.”
As the medical worker told Amnesty International: “This scene will stay with me the rest of my life.”
In Yemen, the rules of war on both sides appear to have no meaning. Hospitals are traditionally regarded as sanctuaries, safe from attacks. Fifty five youngsters were killed by coalition airstrikes on a school bus last August. Urgent international action to stop the slaughters of innocent civilians should be on the “must do” agenda of the United States and the international community, and soon. Time is running out. The Economist estimates that 8,000 more Yemenis are now in danger of dying as hunger and food shortages grow daily.
Those Critical Days, and Yes, Hours Ahead
—Secretaries of State Pompeo and Defense James Mattis last week called for both sides in the devastating war to declare a ceasefire by the end of the month. There has been no official response to that humanitarian appeal from either Riyadh or the Houthis.
—The United States has just cancelled midair refueling of all of its aircraft sold to Saudi Arabia now being used by Saudi pilots to attack civilians and Houthi troops in Yemen.
—There is a growing consensus in the U.S. Congress for measures to limit or curtail possible American aid to Saudi Arabia in response to the recent grisly murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
—Turkey continues to publish, drip by drip, recordings it has of that October 2 slaughter. It appears determined to put sustained pressure on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), said to be the real power in Riyadh under Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz.
—Practically unnoticed last week was the return to Riyadh of senior Saudi royal Prince Ahmad bin Abdulaziz, who has been living in London since the King replaced him as Crown Prince with MBS two years ago. According to VOA correspondent Jamie Dettmer, analysts are divided on whether the king will limit the Crown Prince’s power.
—Dettmer quotes Khalil Jahsan, director of the Washington-based Arab Center and Khashoggi’s friend as saying: “There are clearly discussions underway (in Riyadh) about how to limit the damage and protect MBS .. but whether he can be protected will depend on what role he played in Khashoggi’s murder, based on the evidence.”
—Most important, perhaps, will be a meeting of the United Nations Security Council next Friday (November 16). That will feature a report by U.N. envoy on the Yemen civil war, Martin Griffiths. He has said that he hopes to convene Yemen’s principals on both sides for peace talks by the end of the year. His attempt last summer to convene the parties failed when the Houthis didn’t show up.
Every day, indeed every hour, every minute counts. Think of the number of lives lost in a seemingly unending conflict as the Yemen civil war continues. The most authoritative review of the tragedy comes from the distinguished Middle East correspondent Robert F. Worth.
In a classic New York Times magazine exclusive about the conflict he observed on the ground for two weeks in late September, Mr. Worth summed up: “Later, as night came on, I found myself thinking about a young Houthi fighter I’d met a few days earlier. His wife and 8-year-old child had been killed in a Saudi airstrike, along with four other relatives. He told me that if the Houthi leadership agreed to make peace, he would abide by it. But he didn’t sound convinced. He recited the names of the dead women and children, his face blank and stony. Because of what they did to me,” he said, “I will keep fighting them until the day of judgment.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 236 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More