Yemen: War, Famine And Trauma Expose Crisis Within A Crisis
Being termed as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the Arab world’s poorest nation, Yemen is crippled by war, famine, and mental trauma. A decade-long crisis in Yemen accompanied by limited access to humanitarian aid has made civilians vulnerable to starvation, disease, and deaths in the nation.
The first spark of the conflict began during the Arab uprisings in 2011 when a revolution was started to overthrow the then-reigning president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who’d ruled the country for nearly three decades. Saleh was accused of causing massive unemployment and corruption in the country. The protests majorly came from the Shia rebel group called the Houthis, who had been protesting against Saleh for years. Saleh’s government had subsequently toppled and he was forced to hand over all his powers to his former vice president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.
Hadi, however, failed to maintain order which led to an increase in corruption, unemployment, and food insecurity. Yemen also saw the rise of Houthis, who had used Hadi’s mismanagement to their advantage by establishing their territories in the country. Along, with the Houthis, Al-Qaeda and Daesh had also set up their military base in Yemen, owing to the political instability.
Houthi vs Hadi: Although Houthis had started making territorial gains, yet they lacked military power. To curb this, Houthis joined forces with Saleh to enhance their military power and gained control over Northern Yemen by capturing the capital, Sanaa in September 2014. The Houthis then moved towards Aden in South Yemen, which was ruled by Hadi’s government.
Threatened by their advancement, Hadi took shelter in Saudi Arabia in 2015, while the Houthis had started gaining control of the entire country.
There were speculations that the Houthis were supported by Iran, although Tehran has been denying all rumors. However, the advancement of the Houthis and their subsequent control over the nation had threatened Riyadh. Fearing the Iranian influence at their borders, Saudi Arabia started a coalition in 2015 with other Gulf countries such as Sudan, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Djibouti, Egypt, and Senegal to restore the Hadi Government back in Yemen. Qatar was later expelled from the coalition in June 2017.
Saudi Arabia launched a series of airstrikes in the Houthi-led regions along with blocking the air and sea passage. Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) along with ISIL affiliates also started gaining power in South Yemen by carrying attacks, majorly in Aden. This led to the beginning of the Yemeni Civil War in the year 2015.
The United States of America also started its separate campaign in Yemen. The US targeted Al Qaeda and Daesh, at the same time it also provided military support to the Saudi-led coalition. The coalition was also supported in terms of military, logistics, and intelligence by various other Western powers, such as the UK, Germany, France, Turkey, and the US.
The Houthi-Saleh alliance also came to a halt, when Saleh shifted sides by joining the Saudi-led coalition and waging war against the Houthis. Saleh was later killed by the Houthis outside Sanaa.
The Hadi government and the Saudi coalition, also saw another rebellious southern separatist movement rising in South Yemen, with the rise of the Southern Transitional Council (STC)in 2019. The STC was supported by the Saudi ally, UAE, which was still part of the coalition. UAE has faced international criticism for trying to gain control in the strategic South while breaching the United Campaign. The UAE-backed STC seized control of Aden and declared self-rule in the region, hence breaking the peace deal with Saudi Arabia signed in 2020.
The human cost: The Saudi-led coalition had initially focused on Houthi Military targets. It soon shifted its focus to civilian targets. The coalition started bombing hospitals, schools, marketplaces, wedding ceremonies, and funerals. The Houthis have also retaliated by launching attacks against the government, and also to seize control over other regions of Yemen, the recent one being the clash between the Houthis and government forces to seize control of Marib.
This six-year rift between the two parties has left over 18,400 Yemeni civilians dead on both sides, and more than 3 million Yemenis have been displaced. The conflict has destroyed critical infrastructure, increased a lack of fuel and basic services, along with making the civilians vulnerable to abusive local security forces.
Unprecedented heavy rainfall in many parts of Yemen in 2020 killed scores of people and left others displaced. The floods destroyed and damaged houses and infrastructure, including buildings in Sanaa’s old city, a UNESCO world heritage site, worsening the already existing crisis.
The bombing of the national electricity grid in the capital by the coalition forces has left Yemen’s wastewater plant devoid of power, leading to a massive outbreak of Cholera in the country which has threatened millions. The coalition has also been condemned for repeated bombings of cholera treatment centers across the country. Along with this, factories and commercial warehouses have also been bombed.
UNICEF has also warned about the fatalities of children under the age of 5 who suffer from acute malnutrition could rise to 2.4 million in 2020. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported in October 2019 that 50% of Yemeni children are experiencing irreversible stunted growth. UNICEF warned in June that 7.8 million children had no access to education following Covid-19-related school closures and nearly 10 million did not have adequate access to water and sanitation.
In 2019, landmines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and unexploded ordnance (UXO) have caused the deaths of 498 civilians, up 23% from 405 in 2018, according to the Civilian Impact Monitoring Project.
Human Rights Watch documented in September that Houthi authorities, the Yemeni government and affiliated forces, and the UAE-backed STC were blocking the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid, in addition to the trade and investment blockades. Saudi Warships have physically restricted ships carrying food and supplies to Yemen, hence leaving the region unable to access aid or supplies.
The UN and other aid agencies have also been denied access to people by Houthi forces and other Yemeni authorities. The Houthi authorities have also imposed strict regulations and lengthy delays in approving aid projects. They have also prohibited aid assessments which is required to identify people’s needs, helps in controlling aid monitoring, and dictate or interfere with lists of aid recipients in order to divert aid to authority loyalists.
International and local aid groups are bearing the brunt of the feud between the two forces which is severely affecting their work.
The UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen claimed in 2020 that the warring parties have included children in the armed conflict. Their report stated that the coalition, as well as, the Houthi forces had recruited children as their soldiers. Yemeni boys were deployed to Saudi Arabia for military training, then sent back to Yemen to fight against Houthi forces. Meanwhile, Houthi forces, on the other hand, had also recruited children, including girls, at schools. The rebel group has been accused of using boys for combat and girls as spies, recruiters of other children, guards, medics, and members of the Zainabiyat (female security forces).
The report has also exposed the opposing forces, indulgence in conducting fatalities against civilians. According to the report, the two groups have been engaged in arbitrary detention, torture, including sexual violence, and other forms of ill-treatment, and enforced disappearance in violation of international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Such acts may amount to war crimes.
War crimes: All parties involved in the armed conflict in Yemen have committed serious breaches against international human rights law and international humanitarian law.
In 2020, Saudi-led coalition forces conducted airstrikes that indiscriminately killed and injured civilians. As of March, the Saudi-led coalition had conducted between 20,624 and 58,487 airstrikes since March 2015, according to the Yemen Data Project. Almost a third of all airstrikes carried out by the coalition hit civilian objects such as residential homes, hospitals, schools, weddings, farms, food stores, school buses, markets, mosques, bridges, civilian factories, detention centers, and water wells. The Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis have committed unlawful attacks against detention centers, killing and injuring detainees.
The Saudi military has also been highly criticized for their subsequent bombings of food supply targets and farms, hence pushing the nation to the brink of famine. The World peace foundation report has also accused the Saudi coalition of causing starvation in the nation and using it as a weapon.
“The increased risk of famine globally today, after decades of decline, is a result of the pursuit of military objectives and political priorities without any regard to human suffering,” said Alex de Waal, Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation.
“Today, starvation is being inflicted on people in South Sudan, northern Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen. Yemen poses a particularly acute challenge for the United States and the United Kingdom, who are key allies of Saudi Arabia, which leads the coalition, and supporters of a war effort that systematically and repeatedly flouts international law, destroys the national economy, and devastates the civilian population.”
The Saudi-led coalition and Houthi forces have also continued to fire mortars, rockets, and other missiles indiscriminately into heavily populated areas including Marib, Taizz, and, Hodeidah. These weapons killed and wounded civilians, along with damaging critical infrastructures such as schools and health facilities. In April, Houthi forces attacked the Taizz Central Prison complex, killing five female prisoners, two young girls, and a policewoman, and wounding nine others, according to Mwatana, a Yemeni human rights group. Houthi forces continued to fire ballistic missiles indiscriminately into Saudi Arabia.
Amidst the conflict, the mental health of the civilians also proves to be at stake. The trauma inflicted due to the ongoing conflict has been ignored for a very long time.
“Mental health was not, and is still not, one of our main concerns,” says Yemen’s deputy public health minister, Dr. Ishraq al-Subaie, who acknowledges that all programs and initiatives to tackle mental health problems are on hold.
“Our efforts have been focused on rebuilding hospitals, treating the war-wounded, and addressing reproductive healthcare. With the current state of the economy and the outbreak of Covid-19, we’re unable to cope,” she says.
“Mental health has been completely neglected.”
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), a fifth of those living in war zones are likely to be suffering from some form of mental disorder, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or psychosis.
Quest for peace: Earlier on June 8, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javed Zarif and the United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, had met in Tehran to talk about various aspects of Yemen’s crisis and efforts to restore peace and stability in the Arab country.
The two ministers discussed the necessity for the removal of the blockade on humanitarian aid and facilitate its effective delivery. They also concluded that the crisis in Yemen should be pacified by political dialogue.
The United States on the other hand also seeks to ease tensions with Iran and has hence downsized the number of military assets in Saudi Arabia. The US president Joe Biden’s administration had earlier announced to reduce the number of troops and air defense units deployed to the Middle East, including Patriot batteries and an anti-missile system, called THAAD, from Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia claims to be unshaken by the US partial withdrawal and still seeks to continue the fight.
“This will not affect the Saudi air defenses,” coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki told reporters. “We have a strong understanding with… our allies about the threat in the region. We do have the capability to defend our country.”
With the Houthi forces and the Saudi-led coalition failing to back down and lift restrictions on humanitarian aid, the goal of improving the crisis of this Arab nation seems afar.