Nothing encapsulates the frailty of the human body more than an image of a malnourished child. To see one in Yemen, you do not have to look too far. Here, 130 children a day are dying from extreme hunger.
Across the capital, Sana’a, the starving lie, parked in dwarfing beds in the sprinkling of hospitals that have defiantly remained open. They have transformed into an anatomical curiosity, with over-pronounced skeletons their bodies are now transparent, naked to onlookers. No curves, every inch of their surface straight and square.
The Iran backed Houthi rebels are fighting the Yemeni government, propped up by a Saudi led coalition. In 2015, after previously holding little power across minor crumbs of land, the Houthi seized control of entire chunks of the western end of the nation including Sana’a, home to 1.7 million afflicted people. It is a conflict the region’s poorest country could do without. The Saudis, leaning on the opulent crutch of the US and UK, have blockaded the capital, restricting travel, belittling the currency, doubling living costs and malnourishing residents.
And now, in beds throughout Sana’a, flat, fatigued feet poke outwards from fraying blankets. Thin, narrow legs grow from them, seemingly elongated, sprouting upwards. Twenty-four emphasised ribs perch above a bloated, protruding tummy. Troubled faces, with hollow cheeks and sharp jaws, tightly hug the skull. Eyes deeply set, portraying dejection, fear and a sour taste of acceptance.
On October 24th, the UN warned that half the population of war-torn Yemen – 14 million people – were facing “pre-famine conditions”. It is an inexcusably towering number, seeping into the consciousness of Iran, Saudi Arabia and by extension, NATO and its allies. Western nations, NGOs and general populations overlook the crisis, detached by ponderous distances, blissful ignorance and fundamentally an unwavering chasm of incomparability. The persecuted look deformed, inhuman. To some, they are virtually alien in appearance. Too different from our own to warrant relatability or concern.
The vigorous proxy fighting and the unwholesome blockade has left 22 million people in need of aid, an agar jelly to the world’s largest food insecurity. Secondary effects rain upon locals indiscriminately. The famine is now dovetailing a cholera outbreak that has affected 1.1 million people. A dark tango between two ancient killers prancing over the lives of the Yemeni to the deep, soulless rhythms of war. Given the choice, many would desire to be in the 6,660 civilians who have already been killed by drone strikes and wayward bullets. At least it would have been over quickly.
In a land never fertile and often impoverished by drought, where patches on old clothes are patched and patched again, a civil war has become regional.
The true extent of the suffering is nauseating. There is a terrible uniformity amongst the survivors in Yemen. Tales of air strikes and lost loved ones are told in a repetitive monotone, with stilted words and unvarnished prose. These people are still raw. There’s no Blitz spirit here; just a blinking, passive capitulation.
Only the children, innocent in their youth, able to slip into rich imaginary worlds, raise two fingers up to their predicament by piercing through oblivious smiles. In one of the most powerful displays of video journalism in the last week, BBC News reporter Orla Guerin highlighted three-year-old Abdurahman. Afflicted with a congenital heart condition, his survival hinges on a vital operation in a specialised cardiac operation centre outside of Yemen’s now impermeable borders.
But as he plods down the hospital corridors, recreating the unstable bounce uniquely captured by all toddlers worldwide, chin over the toes, arms outstretched desperate to cling on to a support before a self-imposed tumble ensues, he grins. And it is one hell of a
Abdirahman is effectively a prisoner in Sana’a, penned in by artillery and the Saudi blockade which prevents civilian flights. The UN is lobbying for agreements on medical evacuations, though as Guerin says, it is unclear if or when an air-bridge will be opened. He will, in all likelihood, be condemned to die.
He may become just a speck amongst consistent non-combatant bloodshed, but it is difficult to assert from whose hands it drips. In a land never fertile and often impoverished by drought, where patches on old clothes are patched and patched again, a civil war has become regional. Houthi rebels are now entrenched in the capitol, yielding an oppressive regime, torturing opposers and imprisoning journalists. Legitimate President, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, sought refuge abroad in March 2015 and since, the Saudis have imposed naval blockades and launched missiles against Houthi targets.
But, they are missing their marks. In October 2016, an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition hit a crowded funeral in Sana’a, killing 140 mourners and injuring 500. In August 2018, they struck a school bus, taking the lives of 43 young boys on a field trip. These are the West’s crimes as much as they are the Middle East’s. During his first visit to a foreign nation as US president in June 2017, Donald Trump announced a shockingly large $110 billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that since 2013, around 100 British-made Storm Shadow missiles worth £80m, 2,400 Paveway IV bombs worth £150m, and 1,000 Brimstone missiles worth £100m have been sold by Great Britain to the oil-rich nation.
The UK and US are supplying one side to this unwinnable war in exchange for geopolitical brownie points. The Resident Coordinator of the UN in Yemen, Lisa Grande, derided the West for their role in prolonging the combat during an interview with the BBC last month. “Yes, there’s no question, we should be ashamed. Every day that we wake up we should renew our commitment to do everything possible to help the people that are suffering and in the conflict”, she said. “I think many of us felt, as we entered the 21st century that it was unthinkable that we could see a famine like we saw in Ethiopia. Many of us had confidence that would never happen again, yet the reality is that in Yemen that is precisely what we’re looking at.”
It is a brutal point. But, right now Yemen needs our honesty, she is starving, and for too long we have kept the cupboards locked.