Between other events in the Middle East taking precedence, and a glaring media silence, the chances are that you haven’t heard that much about the current crisis in Yemen. Over the last two years of brutal warfare, Yemen has been driven to desperation, as conflicts have decimated health, water and sanitation systems, meaning that disease is rife and spreading quickly throughout the poverty-stricken population. Yemen relies heavily on international imports, which have been heavily restricted throughout the conflict – as a result, millions are just one step away from famine. So how has this situation come about, and why aren’t we hearing about it?
Yemen has only been unified since 1990, with deep divisions still existing between the north and south of the country. The failure of a political transition aiming to bring stability to Yemen has led to a civil war and a devastating humanitarian crisis. An uprising forced long-time president, the authoritarian Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. President Hadi has struggled with a number of issues since his appointment, including al-Qaeda attacks, southern separatists, corruption, unemployment and food insecurity, as well as uncertainty regarding branches of the military still loyal to Mr Saleh.
‘one of the most shocking consequences of the crisis has been the epidemic of cholera.’
In September of 2014, Houthi (northern rebels who adhere to a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism) took control of Sana’a, and in January 2015 rejected a draft constitution proposed by the government. The following month, the Iranian-backed Houthis appointed a presidential council to replace President Hadi, who fled to a southern stronghold in Aden.
In March 2015, Islamic State carried out its first major attacks in Yemen – 137 people were killed in two suicide bombings at Shia mosques in Sana’a. As the Houthi rebels advanced south, Hadi fled from Aden and Saudi Arabia intervened on his behalf.
Government forces, supported by Saudi Arabia, recaptured Aden in September 2015, allowing President Hadi to return, and UN-backed talks between the conflicting sides began. Neither side since kept to a ceasefire and airstrikes continue, to devastating effect. In an attempt to lessen the influence of their rival, Shi’ite Iran, the Saudis have inflicted constant suffering and human rights abuses on Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. The UN says that more than 5000 civilians have been killed in the conflict, primarily in Saudi airstrikes. The widespread bombing campaign by the Saudis and their allies has destroyed key infrastructure, laying waste to hospitals, schools and homes.
Arguably one of the most shocking consequences of the crisis has been the epidemic of cholera, a disease most familiar to us from history classes. According to the World Health Organisation, over the course of one month this May, over 670 people died of cholera, and over 86,000 were suspected to have the disease. The neglected medical system means that reporting is probably lower than accrual cases – the official figures are likely to be under reporting the full scale of the crisis. And the world looks on.
‘the situation in Yemen is so grossly under-reported because Saudi officials restrict access to the suffering country.’
Nearly one person per hour is dying from the disease which, whilst relatively easy to treat, is spreading quicker than it can be contained due to the damaged infrastructure of the country. The largest cholera epidemic in the world has come about as a result of human action, and a war which is rarely discussed or seen on the screens and pages of international media. Children lie dying from the disease in overcrowded hospitals, places which have not seen international aid despite desperately needing support. Only 45% of the 3500 healthcare facilities surveyed by the UN were in fully functioning operation in November.
Health workers and engineers in Yemen have not been paid for many months, while hospitals, health centres and other public systems are starved of supplies and fuel, which need to be flown into the country via Yemen’s heavily-restricted airspace. The blockade introduced by the Saudi coalition is a disaster for humanitarian aid agencies who are unable to access the areas of the country which have been worst hit by the conflict.
Over 17 million of the country’s 27-million population are classed as food-insecure, with 6.8 million severely so. The effects of famine are seen heavily in the youngest of Yemen’s population; 462,000 children under the age of five are facing severe acute malnutrition.
‘without an immediate increase in aid, there is little hope for yemen’.
Cited by the UN as the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world, the situation in Yemen is so grossly under-reported because Saudi officials restrict access to the suffering country, meaning that very few journalists are in place to report on the crisis. Only the Saudi version of the story emerges as a result, and the world remains ignorant of the suffering being inflicted on the people of Yemen.
Sajjad Mohammed Sajid, Oxfam’s Yemen Country Director, said: “Yemen is on the edge of an abyss. Lives hang in the balance. Two years of war [have] plunged the country into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and [to increased] risk of famine. Now it is at the mercy of a deadly and rapidly spreading cholera epidemic. Cholera is simple to treat and prevent but while the fighting continues the task is made doubly difficult. A massive aid effort is needed now. Those backers of this war in Western and Middle Eastern capitals need to put pressure on parties to the fighting to agree a ceasefire to allow public health and aid workers to get on with the task.”
Without an immediate increase in aid, there is little hope for Yemen. There is unlikely to be an effective nationwide response to the cholera epidemic whilst Yemen remains gripped by war, and organisations such as Oxfam are calling on all parties to bring an end to the conflict, in order to allow health and aid workers to work on the ground to lessen the effects of the epidemic by treating sufferers and providing resources to the population. Richer countries thus have a responsibility to send aid, primarily by keeping to their pledges of monetary support.
The crisis is not as far removed from us in the UK as one might think; there is evidence that the UK’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia are being used to fuel the conflict – fragments of British weapons were found after a strike on a ceramics factory. The campaign group, Human Rights Watch, identified pieces of mangled metal at the site, with the label of a British manufacturer – GEC Marconi Dynamics – as part of a British-made cruise missile. The Saudi coalition also receives logistical and intelligence support from the UK, US and France. With Britain’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia being ruled as lawful by the High Court only recently, it appears that profit is taking precedence over supporting the suffering population of Yemen, for the richer countries which are turning a blind eye.
Despite three attempts at UN peace talks, the latest round of which opened in Kuwait in April 2016, continued escalations in fighting mean that civilian casualties are still rising, with Mr Hadi’s government insisting that negotiations cannot proceed unless rebels withdraw from all areas and lay down their arms. This should be in the process of full implementation through a UN Security Council resolution, but has so far been unsuccessful.
As Yemen becomes more unstable, it contributes more to regional and international tensions. AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) is considered by western intelligence agencies to be the most dangerous branch of Al-Qaeda because of its technical expertise and global reach. Additionally, the emergence of IS affiliates in Yemen adds to the volatile conflict and introduces new concerns.
The situation in Yemen remains at a stalemate – international peace efforts seem to be few and far between, and thwarted at nearly every attempt. The regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia provides the background to a civil war and mounting humanitarian crisis in Yemen, as the world continues to ignore this remote, impoverished corner of the Middle East.