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After seven years of civil war, famine is a danger to millions of Yemenis – but framing their plight in terms of food alone leaves the underlying problems unaddressed

A Yemeni woman cooks on a clay stove at a camp for internally displaced people in the northern province of Hajjah on March 6. Seven years of civil war have kept Yemen, one of the world's poorest countries, in a worsening state of humanitarian crisis.ESSA AHMED/AFP via Getty Images

Kamal Al-Solaylee is the director of the School of Journalism, Writing, and Media at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His latest book is Return: Why We Go Back to Where We Come From.

Three days before Christmas, as I and millions of Canadians scaled back dinner plans in light of the then-raging Omicron variant, the people of my homeland of Yemen braced themselves for modified meal arrangements of their own.

The World Food Programme announced that lack of funds had forced it to cut food aid to Yemen, three short months after it had warned that 16 million Yemenis were “marching towards starvation.” Starting in January, eight million people would receive “reduced food rations” while five million at risk of falling into famine conditions would continue to get the full ration. Packages usually include flour, sugar, pulses, salt and cooking oil or vouchers to buy the same from local stores. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Corinne Fleischer, WFP’s regional director.

For Yemen, times have been desperate since the start of the war, seven years ago this week, but they became even more so recently. Russia’s war in Ukraine simultaneously diverted world attention, such as it was, from the conflict in Yemen and threatened its meagre food-distribution chain as the impoverished Arab country imports at least 27 per cent of its wheat from Ukraine and 8 per cent from Russia, according to a recent report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Earlier this month, a United Nations “high-level pledging event” to raise US$4.27-billion to alleviate what it continues to call the world’s worst humanitarian disaster fell short by almost US$3-billion. At the event Canada announced $62.5-million in funding for 2022, bringing its total humanitarian support since the start of the conflict in 2015 to $357-million. Minister of International Development Harjit Sajjan expressed Canada’s deep concerns about the deteriorating food-security situation in Yemen. “Canada’s support in Yemen is driven by our desire to end a terrible situation that has caused the suffering of so many people – especially women and children, who bear the brunt of the crisis,” he said. “The people of Yemen deserve long-lasting peace, and Canada continues to strongly support all efforts to achieve this.”

A child is treated for malnutrition in Aden, Yemen.SALEH OBAIDI/AFP via Getty Images

It’s easy to see why global efforts and pleas to help Yemen tend to coalesce around providing food and staving off famine. It’s an immediate, visceral, essential need around which all other wishes and desires revolve. For families in Maghrabah in the northern Hajjah Governorate who have resorted to boiling tree leaves into a digestible paste-like substance to feed themselves, there can be no more pressing issue. Nationwide assessments from the UN this month confirm that 19 million Yemenis “will go hungry in the coming months,” 160,000 of whom will face “famine-like conditions.”

Still, approaching the war in Yemen through the lens of food shortages treats the symptoms and leaves the underlying causes festering. The conflation of the whole country with food insecurity sidesteps hard geopolitical complications that need to be untangled first – from the lucrative arms trade in Western democracies to the global dependence on fossil fuel that’s handing an easy win to Saudi Arabia after the United States and Britain have targeted Russian energy exports. More frustratingly for me and millions of Yemenis, the famine narrative masks other kinds of hunger among a population of more than 30 million whose basic humanity has been ignored – or, worse, questioned.

Russia’s war may have united NATO allies and flung the doors of Fortress Europe wide open to refugees from Ukraine (10 million and counting in three weeks), but it also underscored how global crises follow a pecking order in which not all suffering deserves the same humanitarian approach or urgent response.

Refugees from and citizens in Afghanistan, where 23 million are facing acute hunger, and in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, where recent reports suggest that 500,000 have died from famine or war, have known variations of this truth long before the indignities inflicted on Black and brown bodies attempting to cross borders and the privileges afforded their white counterparts became a rallying cry on social media.

Witnessing double standards based on skin tones, religion and place of origin strengthen my resolve to make a case for Yemenis to be seen as more than a mass of empty bellies. I don’t speak on behalf of them but as one of them. Whether in the homeland or the diaspora, we’re hungry for the world to recognize what life in a state of war has done to our bodies, minds and souls.

At top, UNHCR special envoy Angelina Jolie talks with a girl at a refuge for displaced people north of Sanaa, Yemen's capital; at bottom, a man lays out blankets to dry after torrential rains at a camp in the western province of Hodeida on March 16.UNHCR/Marwan Tahtah/Handout via REUTERS; KHALED ZIAD/AFP via Getty Images

A few years ago when I was reporting on the plight of Yemeni refugees in Malaysia, where the subject of food insecurity rose but didn’t dominate the conversation, I was struck by what a young mother told me: “We’re hungry but alive,” she said in Arabic. These were her options and, by that logic, she and her children were the lucky ones.

For Yemenis who cannot or will not leave their homeland, their struggle to feed themselves and their children continues against the everyday brutalities of a war taking place across several battlefronts as part of long-standing internal and regional conflicts.

It started in March, 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition of mostly Sunni Muslim countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Egypt, with logistical support from the U.S., launched airstrikes on Sana’a. It was meant to be a short campaign to restore the government of then-president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who had fled to the southern city of Aden, and to regain ground won by the Iran-backed Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement which took advantage of the political chaos that followed the Arab Spring and seized the capital in 2014.

The fall of Sana’a was the latest in a series of violent confrontations with successive Yemeni governments that date back to 1962, when a republican uprising ended the Zaydi imamate that had ruled over Yemen for almost 1,000 years. While the Houthis stormed into Sana’a under the pretext of demanding lower fuel prices and better representation of their interests in the new government, in effect they were enacting the ultimate revenge and return-to-power fantasy.

Since then, a separatist movement led by the Southern Transitional Movement out of Aden declared self-rule with support from the United Arab Emirates; the Houthis consolidated their control of the capital Sana’a and seem on the cusp of taking over the oil-rich Marib governorate, simultaneously launching missile and drone attacks against energy facilities in Saudi Arabia and civilian targets in Abu Dhabi, UAE; and despite logistical support from the U.S., Britain and France, seven years of coalition airstrikes have failed to achieve their original goal of unseating the Houthis but succeeded in hitting civilian targets and destroying the country’s infrastructure. The Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition currently maintain economic and physical blockades on a number of cities and ports, restricting access to food and medical supplies across Yemen.

The deepest hunger among the people of Yemen is for peace, for all sides of the conflict to end the blockades, put down arms and return to the negotiating table. Efforts to end the famine will continue to be temporary measures without a diplomatic solution that acknowledges the strong support for Houthis in parts of Yemen but puts limits on their control of other regions where either separatism or the restoration of Hadi’s government may be more sensible options.

Houthi fighters attend a funeral for comrades in Sanaa this past November.Hani Mohammed/The Associated Press

As the body count in Yemen rises – it was projected to reach 377,000 from direct and indirect causes by the end of last year the war has been a boon to the arms trade of many countries, including the U.S., the U.K., France and Canada.

Since 2015 and despite diplomatic tensions between the two countries, Canada has exported $7.8-billion in arms to Saudi Arabia. Fifty civil society organizations sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last December, calling for an end to arms export to Saudi Arabia and pointing out contradictions between the Liberal government policy framework and its actions. “Direct support of militarism and oppression, through the provision of arms, is the exact opposite of a feminist approach to foreign policy,” they wrote.

The same goes for the United States. As Bruce Riedel points out in a recent report for the Brookings Institution, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration may have designated peace in Yemen as a “top priority,” but it’s sticking closely to the script of the two previous ones by continuing to sell arms to the Saudis, breaking a campaign promise.

“Under a Biden-Harris administration,” he said in a 2020 statement on the anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, “we will reassess our relationship with the Kingdom, end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”

Saudi’s power comes from having the world’s largest reserve of oil, which gives it significant leverage on the energy market and the global economy. Despite calls for more reforms and condemnations of such totalitarian acts as the recent execution of 81 people for various perceived crimes, much of the world, and the U.S. in particular, has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo in Saudi because, several analysts suggest, a rogue government or an alternative to the royal family could destabilize the region and world order.

A recent attempt by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to persuade Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to pump more oil to fill in the gap created by the economic isolation of Russia is strategically significant but raises a few ethical questions and troubling scenarios. Will Mr. bin Salman, the chief architect of the coalition’s mission, leverage the current crisis to extract more concessions and support for his war in Yemen? After living through the regional power struggles and proxy war between Saudi and Iran, will the citizens of Yemen become a pawn in this confrontation between Russia and NATO allies? Put differently, will Western countries punish Russia for its aggressions by pretending not to see Saudi Arabia’s?

Yemen's hospitals – like al-Sadaqa, top, and al-Joumhouria, bottom, both in Aden – are in serious disrepair, and the World Bank estimates just half of the country's medical facilities are functional.SALEH OBAIDI/AFP via Getty Images

To the lethal mixture of famine and bombardment came the threat of COVID-19. Although the number of confirmed cases at just under 12,000 and deaths at 2,140 as of last week may seem low for a country of Yemen’s population size, the figures reflect scarcity of testing and unreliable data gathering, especially in Houthi-controlled areas. As recent reports suggest, both cases and deaths are on the rise, probably because the national vaccination rate sits at a shocking 2 per cent (although it goes up to 5 per cent in parts of the south). Even if Yemen receives its full share of the 14 million doses of vaccines from the global COVAX program, that should cover about 23 per cent of the population. To date, only 785,000 doses have been administered.

By and large, when I cite stats or other figures in writing about Yemen, I do so from a certain, albeit uncomfortable, distance. Like many middle-class families, and despite close calls, my own in Sana’a has avoided the direct impact of war. Not so with COVID. As I look at the 2,140 death tally, I know that two of them were my sisters Faiza, 73, and Huda, 66, who died of COVID 10 days apart last June. Would they still be alive today had they received even one dose of a vaccine? Could they have survived the disease if they had access to reasonable medical care?

I may never know the answers but I keep asking myself the questions, as if anything I do or say will make sense of this senseless loss. I can’t help but think that these deaths, which were preventable, are a symptom of a collective indifference toward the Yemenis’ need to be protected and cared for. The week after Huda’s death, I received a notification from my local pharmacy with a booking for my second vaccine dose. Bittersweet or tragic, I couldn’t tell you. I wish access were that easy for everyone around the world. Instead, some rich countries are rolling out a second booster shot. Give Yemen and the rest of the Global South their share of vaccines already. They’re hungry and ready for it.

Gravediggers prepare for a burial in Aden in May, 2020, early in the pandemic.The Associated Press

As is the case around the globe, the pandemic didn’t create the inequalities in our societies but it highlighted them to those who had the luxury to look away. In Yemen, it put one gigantic spotlight on the collapsing infrastructure – from health care, to roads, to public service, to education to the readiness of the various governing bodies to absorb the shock of a once-in-a-century (one hopes) catastrophic event like COVID-19. Most notably, if Yemen’s economy had been teetering on the edge before, the pandemic pushed it over. As Rafat Al-Akhali persuasively argues in an essay for Foreign Policy, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is “a symptom of an underlying economic conflict.”

A litany of economic woes includes wage freezes for public employees, the devaluation of the Yemeni riyal and soaring inflation that has put the price of food and gas beyond the reach of millions. As Mr. Al-Akhali notes, there are two separate economic zones in the country, one controlled by the Houthis and the other by the official government. Riyals printed after 2016 are accepted as currency in one part and rejected in another. For those lucky enough to have savings in local banks, access is limited or in some situations unavailable. The middle classes have seen their purchasing power eroded, forcing them to make hard choices between food, medication or shelter.

Most people in Yemen are hungry for stability, social and economic, for the right to plan ahead, to aspire to more than disaster-proofing their lives. In a disaster zone, what exactly entails disaster preparedness? If that sounds like a tagline from a dystopian novel, it’s because for more than seven years the line between the dystopic and the everyday has been imperceptible. The only difference is that most dystopian narratives dwell on a postapocalyptic moment but Yemenis are living and reliving the middle stage, the part where the fighting and suffering pile up. The real appetite is for the end of this horror.

A woman cooks at a camp for displaced people in Aden on March 15.Fawaz Salman/Reuters

Kamal Al-Solaylee on The Decibel

Yemeni-born author Kamal Al-Solaylee explains how the seven-year-old war in Yemen has been deliberately forgotten by the world. Subscribe for more episodes.

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