Kamal Al-Solaylee is an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson University and author of Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes and Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone).
When pictures of a starving Yemeni infant by the name of Udai Faisal began circulating on news feeds around the world recently, I felt optimistic. Even when the accompanying article by the Associated Press informed readers that he died from malnutrition a few days later, I willed myself into thinking that his skeletal face and searing, disproportionately large eyes would serve as a wake-up call to the world.
Instead, as often happens with news from Yemen, the media cycle moved on. Within days, the world, rightly or wrongly, turned its attention to the money-hoarding habits of the rich and famous in tax havens.
Any hopes that Udai's photo would serve as a humanitarian lightning rod, as the image of drowned Syrian child Alan Kurdi did last year, vanished. Granted, a few tweets and status updates on social media delivered the requisite moral outrage by the usual suspects. Otherwise, silence. I should have known better.
As a Canadian of Yemeni origin, I understand that the situation there is much more than a geopolitical challenge. The next picture of a starving (or dying) child could be a member of my family. I have skin in this game, this game of unrelenting war.
For several months now, the United Nations and aid organizations have been calling the year-long war in Yemen – between supporters of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, led by Saudi Arabia; and the Houthi (Shia) rebels, with backing from Iran – a humanitarian catastrophe.
A new Unicef report puts the number of Yemenis in need of urgent humanitarian assistance at more than 21 million, or 82 per cent of the total population. At least half of those vulnerable citizens are children. The number of displaced people is now about 2.4 million. Both sides have attacked schools, hospitals and homes, leaving thousands killed and millions traumatized.
If the ceasefire that is to begin this week doesn't hold – and few observers expect it will – the country's fate enters the stage of complete unknown. What comes after total chaos, anyway?
The precedents of Syria and Afghanistan, the two countries with which Yemen is often compared, come to mind. Except that the proximity of those two failed or fledgling states to European shores, and the mass exodus of their people, act as constant reminders to Western leaders of the scale of human suffering, and to the nature of Europe's porous borders.
Yemen is not so lucky. Tucked in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, on the other side of the East African horn, Yemen is out of sight and its people seem to be out of mind, plunging the poorest country in the region into its second civil war in a little more than 20 years.
Take the Houthi rebels who have picked up a fight with a government that has solicited the full support of the mighty Saudi Arabia and the affluent Gulf countries surrounding it. Despite its ailing economy, Saudi Arabia continues to exert undue influence not only on the Arab world but also on the world stage. No country (except perhaps Iran, by proxy) can afford to start a public relations war with the Saudis, let alone an actual one.
In choosing not to confront Saudi Arabia on its war actions in Yemen, world leaders (and that includes almost all in the Arab world, beneficiaries of the petro-state's largesse) have turned a blind eye to the plight of Yemeni citizens, currently the globe's largest collateral damage.
Even Canada's new government has declined to reverse course in a deal to supply the Saudis with armoured vehicles. What price our collective humanity? Fifteen billion dollars and a few thousand jobs in Southern Ontario. I realize what a bind the Liberal government finds itself in with this deal, inked by the Conservatives, but I expect a more coherent and less grim rationale to carrying on with it than the Lady Macbeth-like "what's done is done."
Otherwise, we're just part of the dehumanizing silence that greets Yemen's ongoing tragedy.