When we sang in concerts in the mid-1980s to raise money for the children of Ethiopia who were dying en masse of starvation, we vowed it would never happen again in our lifetime.
When we cried as we saw the emaciated skeletal frame of a child walking hand in hand with a doctor from MSF down a dusty road in South Sudan in 1993, the world’s indifference to the famine enraged us.
But in the here and now, when children are dying of starvation in Yemen, their tiny bodies wasting away as their mothers are too emaciated to breastfeed them, where is our outrage, our revulsion? Has our humanity been sacrificed on the altar of expediency? Is it so convenient to ignore a catastrophe where babies and toddlers have begun to resemble carcasses all because it is a desperately poor country in a region of the world we can’t relate to?
Let’s face it, we don’t know anyone who ever had Yemen on their bucket list, and what people hear is that women walk around like black pillow cases and men chew on leaves call khat from morning till night, a phenomenon that has become a national addiction. It all seems like a place a bit beyond our comprehension, and so it is difficult to feel moved by a tragedy in a country we simply don’t understand.
But there was a time Yemen was at the centre of the ancient universe. Yemen was known as Sheba 3,000 years ago, on the main spice route from the east to Europe – a rich and powerful dominion. The Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon appears both in the Bible and the Koran. From those times Yemenis were highly respected with a rich culture and history.
Yemen is one of the few places in the world where time has stood still. The old walled city in the centre of the capital Sana’a is like entering medieval times in many respects. But Yemen and its precious history and priceless architecture has been caught in a deadly fight between two regional hegemons. Sadly we are watching one of the most historical places on earth being destroyed, just as Syria to the North lies in ruins.
As the UN Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock has said, an urgent resolution to the conflict is what is needed. That will obviously require a negotiated political solution. Lowcock has warned that Yemen is on the verge of a widespread famine, with about half of the population completely relying on humanitarian aid for survival. Lowcock told the UN Security Council this week that this famine would be “much bigger than anything any professional in this field has seen during their working lives.” This is a very real and dire alert.
It is estimated that 14 million Yemenis are facing pre-famine conditions, which includes at least five million children. 370,000 children in Yemen have already been suffering from severe malnutrition. With weakened immune systems they are much more susceptible to infections and many have also been suffering from cholera and diphtheria. The UN has been able to scale up its assistance, reaching as many as eight million people, but it is still far below the number of people that need help. Save the Children estimates that last year alone 130 Yemeni children died every day.
But as Doctors Without Borders will attest, the country’s health system has virtually collapsed. In excess of 600 hospitals have been forced to close down, and those that remain functioning lack doctors, medicine and space to treat the critically ill. The blockade has resulted in a humanitarian emergency, as food and medicine have not been able to reach the civilian population. Yemen is almost entirely reliant on imports for food, fuel and medicines.
According to Lowcock, the worsening food crisis was in large part the result of an intensification of fighting around the key port city of Hodeidah. The city’s seaport was responsible for delivering 70 percent of Yemen’s imports – mostly humanitarian aid, food and fuel before 2015. The Saudis have accused the Houthis, who reportedly generate between US$30-40 million a month in revenue from the port, of using the port to smuggle in weapons from Iran. The Saudis say the port will only reopen when it is in UN and not Houthi hands. Hodeidah has been under the control of Houthi rebels since 2014, along with other coastal cities and much of northern Yemen.
Given that Yemen is being called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, we owe it to the Yemeni people to encourage the UN to do all it can to end the crisis as a matter of urgency. If a resolution is not found soon to the conflict, history will not be kind.
Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.