I’m sure, like me, you have been deeply troubled by events in Yemen over recent years. I’ve been feeling for some time, that at very least, I would like to be able to pray meaningfully for this nation, and I hope as a church we can explore ways of practically helping those working in a humanitarian capacity on the ground there. What follows is an article I’ve put together that I hope will shed some light on the crisis and spur us into some form of action to help our fellow human beings in this troubled country.
What is happening in Yemen?
The people of Yemen have been living through a crisis of inconceivable proportions. In a country with a population of 31 million people, an estimated 24 million are in need of urgent assistance while 5 million face starvation every day. Moreover, the economy has collapsed, a six-year civil war has torn the country apart whilst, behind the scenes, international powers, whatever their political intentions, have prolonged the war and the human tragedy that comes with it. Since the outbreak of war, an estimated 100,000 have been killed and 4 million displaced. This is exacerbated by what the UNHCR describe ‘as deeply-rooted discriminatory norms and practices that push millions further into poverty’. Despite a number of hopeful political advancements in recent years, in reality the war is far from over – in 2020, ten new frontlines formed and continued Saudi-led aggression (costing billions every month) has only hardened the resolve of the Huthi rebels.
What caused the war?
‘By mid-2017 Yemen faced total humanitarian disaster, its first famine since the 1940s and the world’s worst cholera epidemic. This situation was unprecedented and avoidable: both were the result of a civil war dramatically worsened by international interventions.’
By 2011, it looked likely that the regime of the first Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh would fall as the result of the mass anti-government movement known as the Arab Spring. The protests, which started in Tunisia, quickly spread to other countries including Yemen and were directed against corrupt governance, poor standards of living and state oppression. On the 27th January 2011, up to 20,000 Yemenis gathered in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, to call for the removal of Saleh. The situation soon became ugly and violent however, and on the 18th March, Saleh’s men perpetrated a massacre against protesters, killing forty-five and injuring two hundred. It would be an act that would only undermine Saleh’s already tenuous hold on power and after he was injured in an attack on his palace, along with increased internal and external pressure for him to resign, Saleh agreed to allow the formation of a transitional government; his vice president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi took charge of the country, and it was expected that he would form a new national unity government.
Unfortunately, during this period, the Huthis—a minority group of Shiites (Zaydi Shiites)—although involved in the transitional process, began to take over several Yemeni governates; by 9 November 2011 they were in control of the northern Saada and Al Jawf governates and were close to taking over the Hajjah governorate (all three governates border Saudi Arabia). The Huthis were largely radicalised as a result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, as Shiites, attracted the interest of Iran who undoubtedly sought a greater influence in the Arab world – although the extent of Iranian involvement on the ground in Yemen is a matter of debate. It was during this time of military expansion that the Huthis confessed allegiance to Saleh and in June 2014 the capital fell to the rebel group, commencing what Helen Lackner calls a ‘slow coup’. Although President Hadi was forced to resign and placed under house arrest, he was able to escape to Aden where he withdrew his resignation and declared the city to be a temporary capital. However, it was not until airstrikes were directed against Hadi’s palace, forcing him to flee to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, that the war had truly begun:
‘By March 2015 Yemen was in a state of civil war with the Huthi-Saleh forces controlling the northern highlands and fast moving beyond them in all directions. Hadi’s internationally recognised government had retreated to Aden and lacked military force.’
Whilst Saudi Arabia had always played an interfering role in Yemeni politics, it now planned a robust response to the events on its borders. However, the highly trained Saudi army in possession of advanced weaponry, underestimated the Huthi resolve in what they thought would be an easy victory against a rebel group in the poorest country in the Middle East. The formation of the Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes on the 26th March 2015 in a mission named ‘Decisive Storm’, yet it did not prove to be decisive at all.
The internationalisation of the war was not confined to Arab and African nations and, ‘whilst not formally members of the coalition, the US, UK and France supported the Saudi-led coalition by providing weapons, intelligence and training to its members’. The threat of Iranian involvement in the war, the militant creed of the Huthis, the presence of Al-Qa’ida in the country and the strategic position of Yemen in the Gulf made the “War on Terror” impossible to ignore for the western powers, prompting their earnest support of the Saudi-led coalition against the Huthi rebels. The primary victims of the six-year war would inevitably be civilians. By 2017, the humanitarian crisis had escalated alarmingly.
Starvation and the blockade
Yemen has always been highly dependent on the import of wheat, its main staple, 90% of which is supplied from outside the country. However, not only has the war made impossible the distribution of food, but the blockading of Yemen’s main port, Hodeida, by the Saudi-led coalition has also cut off essential food supplies to the already impoverished Yemeni people. The blockade is a direct cause of the reality of starvation facing millions. Sadly, starvation is also wielded as a weapon; deliberate attacks have been carried out, ‘preventing humanitarian aid access, air and ground attacks on means of food production and food distribution such as public markets, farms, livestock, fishing boats, food warehouses and water wells’.
Disease is another major problem in Yemen. The political stalemate has led to the rapid deterioration of living conditions, starvation, and the spread of disease, mostly directly related to severe malnutrition. The collapse of government services and the ongoing armed conflict has resulted in one of the worst cholera epidemics in the modern era. It has affected all but one of the twenty three governates of Yemen: ‘Currently children under five represent 23% of the total suspected cases’. The cholera epidemic is the result of the ’long-lasting absence of clean water’. The true tragedy is that Cholera is a completely avoidable disease. Cases of diphtheria are also escalating in at least thirteen of the governates.
Adding to the cholera epidemic Yemen has also faced the growing problem of the COVID-19 pandemic. Few tests are available, hospital capacity is limited, and the government is unable to enforce measures such as social distancing to help people protect themselves. Lack of food, clean water, and acceptable living conditions have also made the Yemeni people more vulnerable. This is a situation that will only deteriorate further if action is not taken.
There are additional problems facing the crumbling health services; doctors and nurses have gone unpaid for years, have been the victims of armed attacks, and the withdrawal of aid from countries (including the UK government’s recent reduction of aid funding) will directly affect nutrition programmes helping 260,000 severely malnourished children, whilst more than 1 million woman need treatment for acute malnutrition – words such as ‘severe’ and ‘acute’ used in relation to malnutrition are, quite simply, euphemisms for starvation.
Casualties of war
Civilian casualties in the ongoing war continue to rise, with over 500 casualties each month. Children make up the numbers of many of those injured or killed; in the Al Jawf province in January last year, one in two casualties were children. Children and young people are affected in other ways also, and the use of child soldiers by the Huthis is well documented; the Yemeni human rights organization, Mwatana for Human Rights, published a report in October 2020 citing evidence of ‘the use of at least 602 children, including at least 43 girls’ during 2019. The document also records multiple cases of sexual crimes against children and women: ‘Documented cases of rape included seven girls aged 5, 8, 11, 12 and 13 years old, two girls aged 16 years old, and two boys aged 8 and 13 years old’.
Ordinary Yemenis are also commonly the victims of Saudi-led airstrikes, which have targeted civilian sites, including schools. Ground attacks are also attributable to Saudi-led forces, including mercenaries in the pay of the Saudis. Moreover, cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearances, and the use of landmines has resulted in unbearable living conditions, and both sides in the conflict are guilty of multiple acts of inhumanity: ‘The parties to the conflict in Yemen continued to commit grave violations, undermining Yemenis ability to live’.
The involvement of western powers, the US, the UK, and France create a particular moral conundrum. Trump’s administration openly supported the Saudi-led coalition, selling weapons such as aircraft, and providing training for coalition troops (he brashly signed an enormous arms deal with the Saudis in 2017). It took the political outrage that followed the murder, in October 2018, of Jamal Khashoggi to begin a shift in opinion concerning the US pro-Saudi position. Khashoggi was a Saudi dissident, murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, who spoke out against, amongst many things, his country’s treatment of women and the Saudi-led blockade of Yemen. As a result of the assassination, the US ceased its operations alongside the Saudi-led forces in the region; the US had been refuelling planes heading into Yemen to carry out airstrikes.
The UK has also been morally implicated in the prolongation of the war, selling weapons to the Saudis. Just this month (February 2021), the British government authorised the export of £1.4 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia. In contrast, the new US president acted immediately after his inauguration to bring the plight of the Yemeni people back into global focus; in his first foreign policy speech of the 4th February 2021, he called the situation in Yemen a ‘humanitarian and strategic catastrophe’, stating unambiguously, ‘this war has to end’. The following decision to cease US support for military operations in Yemen and the end of arms sales to Saudi Arabia represents a massive policy change for the US government - whether it will affect the continued aggression of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen remains to be seen.
Without doubt, the internal conflict within Yemen has been escalated and prolonged by the involvement of the “super powers”, who have placed their own political and economic agendas above moral and humanitarian considerations. Moreover, the support of a highly questionable Saudi-led campaign into the region, against a Shiite rebel group, runs the danger of turning into a proxy war between the Saudi-led coalition and Iran, if this is not already the case. Whilst it cannot be denied that the Huthis are perpetrators of horrific crimes against the Yemeni people, the policy of the wider international community to remove the Huthis from power has clearly failed, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives, the destruction of a country’s infrastructure, and a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportions. The need for a peaceful solution could never be more pressing for Yemeni people, and it is surely time for those with the political influence in the region to work to broker a lasting peace and halt what has become a pointless spiral of violence.
Three things we can we do:
Pray – pray for peace and for the plight Yemeni people.
Lobby – write to your local MP raising the question of why we, as a country, are selling weapons to a country that has a long list of human rights violations.
Give – research and financially support a humanitarian body, working on the ground in Yemen.
 Lackner, Helen. ‘Yemen in Crisis’, 33.
 Yemen in Crisis’, 50.
 ‘Yemen in Crisis’, 53.
 Which included the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar (removed in 2017), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Senegal and Sudan Somalia and Eritrea joining at a later date.
 ‘Yemen in Crisis’, 57.
 ‘Yemen in Crisis’, 33.
 https://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/under-secretary-general-humanitarian-affairs-and-emergency-relief coordinator-mr-mark-6
 75% of child soldiers were recruited by the Huthis.
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