The Arab Spring of 2010 – 2011 has not rolled on to summer days for Yemen. Now a war-torn nation, Yemen is the victim of both weak internal politics as well as external meddling. Prompted by the Spring unrest in many parts of the Islamic world, Yemen in 2011 experienced a “transition” from the stale, authoritarian presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who handed over his rule to his then deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Although the flimsiest of concessions – as opposed to a wholesale renewal of government based on multiparty elections – it seemed the civil transfer of power was good enough for Yemen’s people, and it would enable the country to go forward with higher hopes. The incoming Hadi, however, was quickly beset by southern separatists’ aspirations, persistent loyalty among the military top brass towards Saleh, ongoing corruption, unemployment and food scarcity, as well as sporadic jihadist attacks.
Today, Yemen is a country tarnished throughout by civil war, with Saleh’s old enemies – the Houthi movement that fights for control by the country’s Zaidi Shia Muslim minority – having taken control of the north with relative ease. The Houthi’s stronghold was always the Saada province, and the movement now controls it, along with several surrounding areas.
As Hadi’s inability to address Yemen’s affairs grew more apparent, the Houthi’s popular appeal grew, and the movement attracted both Shia and Sunni Muslim residents’ sympathies. Popular support due to lingering dissatisfaction – combined with a weak and remote government – saw fighting erupt, enabling a Houthi coup in late 2014. The capital city Sanaa also fell to rebel control in 2015, while Hadi was forced into exile. Both Houthi aggression as well as variably substantiated allegations of Yemeni military leaders – in cahoots with erstwhile president Saleh – supporting such actions, ensured Hadi’s departure into exile, leaving behind a torn government, and a people in crisis.
Yemen’s internal strife exacerbated from the outside
The current internecine stalemate has wrought havoc on the nation’s food supplies, bringing many to the brink of starvation all over the country. For many Yemeni families, feeding their children, as well as accessing needed medical care, are evaporating hopes. Malnutrition is rife in some areas, in a country that was never a bread basket to begin with. The current hostilities have interrupted Yemen’s ports, the food supplies that typically flowed from these coastal regions, as well as many citizens’ ability to plant and manage a seasonal crop.
Exacerbating the hardship for Yemeni’s are the various players forcing their own interests in the region, those who have latched onto fragmented Yemen with fervour. Neighbouring (Sunni) Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of neighbouring states in offensives against the Houthi encampments, with Saudi jets frequently bombing targets in the north country. Hospitals and schools too have been destroyed, and aid agencies have repeatedly condemned the targeted destruction of civilian installations. Millions of Yemen’s children have been forced to abandon their education.
Although the coalition’s air and ground actions, as well as the naval blockade still in place along the coastline, are alleged to be in keeping with UN Charter articles, critics have disputed this, and pointed to the real ramifications for common Yemenis. Widespread criticism of the coalition’s efforts have centered more specifically on those of Saudi Arabia, accused of seeking particularly the collapse of any Shia Muslim movement on its borders, rather than any egalitarian or democratic end result. With the vast southern coastal stretch also broadly yet sparsely dotted with Al Qaeda operatives, common Yemenis seem trapped within their own borders.
Most painfully, all parties in the Yemeni war appear to be accepting civilian casualties with a new disregard for non-combatant human life. The war is being waged on a new low as regards the safety of civilians, and their current often desperate needs, with alarming statistics of civilian deaths now commonplace.
To date, the Houthi movement remains in control of the territory they originally conquered, while the coalition partners, in conjunction with many European nations’ support, are hoping for a greater, final offensive to restore the erstwhile government of Hadi.
Notwithstanding over 18,000 air raids by Saudi jets, the coalition remains unconvinced that a ground force offensive would be able to recapture Sanaa, or any of the terrain Houthi rebels currently control. Iran – Saudi relations are at an all-time low, and Iran is seen as the Houthi movement’s principal benefactor, although its ability to arm and supply rebel forces is intermittently hamstrung by current monitoring.
Amidst all of the carnage, Yemen’s children are dying
Not only have over 80,000 people – civilians and combatants – died in the conflict, over two million children are at risk of dying from conditions brought on by severe malnutrition. Millions of Yemenis are on the move, having fled their homes for areas away from conflict hot spots, typically finding themselves cut off from conventional food supplies or healthcare services of any kind when they arrive.
Children are paying the heaviest price, according to UNICEF and other agencies doing relief work in the country. Poverty in Yemen was a social scourge even before the Arab Spring, and has simply increased under the current internecine warfare.
The war has dramatically worsened Yemen’s humanitarian situation, resulting in a full-blown catastrophe, which some agencies have called genocide. All warring parties are gripped by the desire for military conquest, while peace talks – and the nation’s hungry population – lie forgotten. Reporters on the ground regularly file reports of civilian installations being bombed by Saudi jets. Aid agencies are hampered by Yemen’s geography too, with an entire northern border running alongside Saudi Arabia, and the entire southern coast variably beset with foreign naval warships policing the seas.
In spite of such difficulties, prominent agencies are active on the ground in Yemen, but they face a daunting task. Not only are supplies often lost, curtailed or simply irregular, the theft of food aid is being used as a tool of war, often in an attempt to weaken Houthi resistance. The Houthi rebels too, frequently steal food donations that they then distribute only to those who express wholesale support for the movement. Civilians pay the heaviest toll, as the warring parties in this conflict have made food scarcity an offensive tactic.
Millions of children face malnourishment in 2020
As fighting intensifies, humanitarian organisations are at risk of succumbing to the carnage and being forced to retreat. Recent attacks in December 2019 on specifically aid agencies’ encampments have alarmed the UN, while agency workers on the ground say that the real victims will be the Yemeni people. As the war drags on, agencies are mostly in agreement that more than half the population will need food aid to avoid malnutrition or outright starvation in the coming months.
Never an agriculturally giving land, failed or absent crops unsupported by imports make the threat of famine engulfing Yemen a looming probability. Now in winter, if the region is at all impacted by climate change this coming summer season, aid workers fear the worst if the scant rainfall eludes farmers altogether. Caught between the internal conflict and an average annual rainfall of just 127mm, failed summer rains could well prove to be the last straw that propels millions into starvation.
More than any other recent crisis, Yemen’s humanitarian disaster has focused a spotlight on humanitarian aid – food and medical supplies – in terms of how it is dispatched, distributed and ultimately consumed. Although the UN raised an amount of some $3 billion that was needed to address malnutrition and starvation in Yemen in 2018 – 2019, it has been criticised by potential recipients for allegedly allowing the Houthi rebels to distribute food. Most likely a marriage of convenience, it seems at times that Houthi “oversight” and “distribution” is the best aid agencies can hope for. Stories of rebels confiscating food or selling it on the black market – often directly from a crate still bearing a UN or other insignia – have seen their popular support souring in many locales.
Allegations that the movement steals children to train as soldiers or use as human shields have also encouraged many families to flee, exacerbating the situation, and pushing the country towards more hardship and starvation. With peace talks mooted but as yet unmanifest, the conflict in Yemen looks set to drag on into 2020, meaning that the death toll among Yemen’s most vulnerable – the children – will continue to climb.