Whilst the nations of the world responded to the outbreak of Covid-19 and continue to grapple with its devastating impact, one country has silently suffered - Yemen.
In the early 1950s, when my late Granny's sister, a Nun who worked as a midwife in some of the poorest countries of the world such as Yemen, wrote home to her family, she described the people of the Aden Colony (now modern day Yemen) as ‘having little’ but ‘grateful for the help and care’ they received. 21st Century Yemen is a far cry from the country that existed under British rule...
Build-Up To War
When the revolutionary wave which swept across the Islamic nations after the Arab Spring finally crashed into Yemen in January 2011 (nearly exactly 10 years ago), it brought the poorest nation in the middle east to its knees.
The conclusion of Yemen’s brief encounter with the Arab Spring resulted in political arrangements and deals which did little to bring stability to the troubled region.
Consequently, in September 2014, Houthi forces took over the capital of Yemen, Sana’a, and the government. Houthi rebels quickly mobilised and took over large swathes of the country including the Lahik Governorate which forced the ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners, concerned that a Shia militia with strong ties to Iran and Hezbollah was gaining control over Yemen, launched a devastating and relentless military campaign, named Operation Decisive Storm, in March 2015.
6 years later, Yemen continues to be a proxy battlefield for foreign involvement, serving as the pitched battleground between the Saudi-led coalition and Iranian influence in the region.
The Human Cost
The impact of the conflict has been devastating for the Yemeni people. UNICEF regards the conflict as the ‘largest humanitarian crisis in the world.’ Over 24 million people (80% of the population) urgently need humanitarian assistance. Initial bombing campaigns carried out by Saudi Arabia and its allies claimed the lives of an estimated 17,000 people and have left over 12 million people facing starvation. The reputable organisation, Armed Conflict Location and Event Data states that the death toll stands 100,000 fatalities as of 2019. It is likely much higher now.
In blatant disregard of the Geneva Convention, Human Rights Watch has noted at least 90 illegal acts of war perpetrated by the Saudi led coalition, including the deliberate bombing of ‘hospitals, school buses, markets, mosques, farms, bridges, factories, and detention centres.’
However, now Yemen has also a silent and as deadly threat to contend with - Covid 19. A report in the Guardian newspaper bluntly and heartbreakingly sums up the impact of the pandemic in Yemen, ‘Elsewhere in the overwhelmed hospital, children are suffering with cholera, diphtheria and dengue fever, contagious diseases that have stalked Yemen since the outbreak of war six years ago. For patients and doctors here, in what the UN says is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, coronavirus barely registers.’ It is impossible to know the actual impact of Covid-19 in Yemen due to a non-existence of testing and a complete collapse of the health system.
3,153 Lost Childhoods
According to a report conducted by UNICEF, at least 3,153 children have been killed. UNICEF representative Sara Beysolow Nyanti comments, ‘Now as the world’s attention focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic I fear the children of Yemen will be all but forgotten. Despite our own preoccupations right now, we all have a responsibility to act and help the children of Yemen. They have the same rights of any child, anywhere.’
2 million children under the age of 5 are malnourished and nearly half of all children under 5 are stunted - the impact of the war has quite literally stopped their cognitive development. There have been widespread instances of sexual violence perpetrated against children and the UN estimates that 3,467 children have been sent to the frontline as ‘child soldiers’.
The Western Role
Unsurprisingly the West has been complicit in the devastating conflict, particularly the USA and UK who continue to assist and cheer on Saudi Arabia from the side-lines.
The Trump Administration recently approved the sale of $290m in bombs to Saudi Arabia as part of a flurry of arms deals with Middle Eastern dictatorships in the last weeks of Trump’s Presidency despite congressional and public opposition to such deals.
‘The Trump administration is rushing through with parting arms gifts to Saudi Arabia despite its deplorable human rights record,’ said Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), the organization founded by Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident and author murdered by the Saudi regime in 2018.
In June 2019, the Court of Appeal ruled that British arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful and accused ministers of ignoring whether airstrikes that killed civilians in Yemen broke humanitarian law.
Sir Terence Etherton, the master of the rolls, said that ministers had ‘made no concluded assessments of whether the Saudi-led coalition had committed violations of international humanitarian law in the past, during the Yemen conflict, and made no attempt to do so.’
Britain has since resumed arms sales to Saudi Arabia, after International Trade Secretary Liz Truss told MPs that violations of international law were ‘isolated incidents’.
One would be inclined to think that Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves are a certain deciding factor in such arms deals...
Does Yemen Have A Future?
Whilst we may complain about seemingly never-ending lockdowns and having to wear a facemask, spare a thought for the people of Yemen - particularly the children of Yemen. With the rollout of vaccines beginning in the UK, there may be finally light at the end of the tunnel. However, with ever worsening food shortages, lack of medical supplies and health professionals and continued military action, the nightmare in Yemen is far from over.
Despite this, young people in Yemen have not lost all hope. They believe that better days will come when bombs no longer fall on cities and towns and when children can be children.
Abdulrahman Al-Habshi, a young Yemeni computer scientist and social media consultant defiantly says, “As much as it pains me to say it, the situation is dismal. That doesn’t mean we the youth of Yemen don’t hope anymore. We do. But we can only pray that this war ends soon before we lose more of our family and friends to the senseless killing,” he said.
For now, all they know is war.
Gerard Scullion is 20 and from Carnlough, East Antrim. He studies Law at Queen’s University Belfast and takes an interest in matters of faith and politics.