Al Hudaydah, Yemen. 20 February, 2017. Since the beginning of 2015 Yemen has been embroiled by an internal conflict, which has in turn led to a humanitarian catastrophe and a food crisis in the country, which the UN has warned could become a full-blown famine as it is rapidly deteriorating.
Since March 2015, Yemen, the poorest Arab country, has been engulfed in a bloody civil war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and those allied to the Houthi rebel movement. The conflict started in September 2014 when the Houthis took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and proceeded to push southwards towards the country’s second-biggest city, Aden. Houthis were arguing that they had major economic and political grievances.
In response to the Houthis’ advance, a coalition of Arab states launched a military campaign in 2015 to defeat the Houthis and restore Yemen’s government. Several of these countries have sent troops to fight on the ground in Yemen, while others have only carried out air strikes.
Since then, pro-government fighters have driven the rebels out of much of southern Yemen, as well as preventing them from seizing Aden, where Mr Hadi and his government have temporarily established themselves. However the rebels still control Sanaa and large parts of the north-west of the country.
At the same time, militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and rival affiliates of so-called Islamic State (IS) have been taking advantage of the chaos and seized territory in the south and increase their attacks. In return, the United States has regularly launched air strikes on the two jihadi groups in Yemen, in addition to deploying a small number of troops on the ground.
Civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting and have been repeatedly the victims of what activists have described as serious violations of international law by all parties. The fighting has left at least 7,000 people dead and 40,000 injured, although the UN admits that the figures are higher since the UN has only limited access to health centres data in the country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has estimated that Saudi-led coalition air strikes have been responsible for almost two-thirds of reported civilian deaths, although Houthis have been accused of being responsible for mass civilian casualties for their siege to the Yemeni city of Taiz.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has estimated that more than 3.3 million Yemenis are internally displaced, and that 120,000 have sought asylum in other countries, including Djibouti and Somalia. According to the UN 2017 humanitarian response plan for Yemen, two years of war and the blockade have left an estimated 18.8 million people in need of humanitarian or protection assistance. The destruction of civilian infrastructure and restrictions on food and fuel imports have led to 21 million people being deprived of life-sustaining commodities and basic services. More than 1,900 of the country’s 3,500 health facilities are also currently either not functioning or partially functioning, leaving half the population without adequate healthcare.
More than 19 millions of Yemenis have no access to safe drinking water or sanitation; they must cope with inadequate shelters, infrastructures, and basic services, as well as lack of food. In particular, the UN has stressed the lack of food provision and the fact that 14 million of Yemenis are considered food insecure, including 2.2 million children who are acutely malnourished and nearly 500,000 suffering from severe acute malnutrition. Moreover, more than 400,000 children under the age of five are at risk of starving to death.
Severe poverty, war damage, and the naval embargo imposed by the Saudi-led coalition have all combined to increasingly deteriorate food security. According to Stephen O’Brien, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator, the blockade is having a “disproportionate impact” on civilians by stopping life-saving medication being flown in, and preventing 20,000 Yemenis accessing specialist medical treatment abroad. It is also responsible for people dying of malnutrition, and of preventable diseases.
Even before the war, tens of thousands of Yemeni children were dying of preventable causes. However, the situation is now much worse and an estimated 1,000 children are dying every week from preventable killers like diarrhoea, malnutrition and respiratory tract infections.
O’Brien has urged international aid to help Yemenis facing their threats of famine and preventable diseases, and he is optimistic that donors will help. However, across Yemen, aid organisations are facing major obstacles in helping Yemenis in need of food, medicine, and other essentials items. Yemen’s air and sea ports have been regularly blocked by the warring parties, and supplies can often not get in. Furthermore, coalition airstrikes targeting and the destruction of healthcare facilities has caused a major blow to an already limited and extremely stretched healthcare system. Saudi coalition airstrikes bombing of hospitals run by Doctors Without Borders and other charities have been a routine event since 2015 that have led to Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and others charities to accuse Saudi Arabia over a “worrying pattern of attacks” to medical facilities in Yemen. The various attacks to essential medical services have left the already vulnerable Yemeni population even more at risk.
Mr O’Brien has urged the Saudi-led coalition, which is backed by Western countries including the US, the UK, and France, who have been supplying the Saudi-led coalition with weapons and intelligence, to remove its no-fly zone and reopen Sanaa airport. The aid agency Oxfam has accused countries who could be helping end the war – including the UK, which has supplied arms to Saudi Arabia – of “complicity”. Although Iran has denied arming the Houthi rebels, the US military said it intercepted arms shipments from Iran to Yemen during the conflict. Moreover, Iranian officials have openly suggested the possibility of Iran sending military advisers to support the Houthis
A UN-sponsored peace process also appears stalled after the collapse of a second round of UN-brokered talks which had started in Kuwait in April 2016; the stalemate resulted in an escalation in the fighting and a dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties. President Hadi’s necessary condition for peace is the withdrawal of the Houthi rebels from all areas under their control and for the Houthis to lay down their arms according to UN Security Council resolution 2216.
Report: Tina Lozio/IMAGESLIVE
Photographer: Maad Ali/IMAGESLIVE