Will Yemen ever be Yemen again?

“I have a very wonderful memory of Yemen. But what I can say when you look at the situation today I can say I had a very happy time. Very positive things I get from my life in Yemen. Everything was fine… According to our standard in Yemen, it was a good life because there is one thing important for everyone, not just in Yemen, but around the world- the peace, the safe(ty), the security. When you have peace in your home … in your neighbourhood and in your city, this is all what you need ….It is not my country. It is not the Yemen that I grew up (in)… (From) what I see (on) the TV, what I hear from people, it is not my country... I am shocked… nobody could imagine it.”. This is what Belquise, who left Yemen just prior to the war, told the British Red Cross on a podcast. Why has a nation where people could have a “very good social life” and “get a job with a good salary with a good environment” become an uninhabitable country?

To understand this, we need to delve into the recent past and ask ‘how did it occur in the first place?’. The 2011-12 revolution that forced their president of 33 years (a reign longer than most monarchs across the globe) – Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh – to step down was the trigger. He passed the torch to the former vice president (Abdabbuh Mansur Hadi), but by then the nation had started to crumble and show the cracks that are apparent now. There was always the issue of Al-Qaeda, but it was the Iranian-backed Houthi militants that took control of this uneasy transition to Hadi. They conquered and controlled the northern part of Yemen and continued to do so until Hadi stepped down from this position. This ultimately left the Houthis in charge of Yemen. The Houthis were aided by the citizens of the land – the need for change or external pressure influencing them, so the Yemeni saw them as potentially the good people in this fight for power. However, this was short-lived. A movement backed primarily by Saudi Arabia, which involved launching airstrikes to Yemen, halted them in their tracks. This war has proved to be confusing- the Saudi seem to be trying to prevent a just cause, whilst the Houthis (and those backing them) felt a change was required. The government was restored with the hope that the country could go back to normal and the two factions would look for peace. However, the opposite happened – the nation descended into a seemingly irreversible crisis.

After that, there were (and still are) many groups involved such that it has become unclear at times what exactly is going on. Government friendly forces drove the Houthis and their allies away from the south, where they eventually settled in the North, with their stronghold being Sana’a (the capital). This led the government to base themselves in Aden – in the South – but over time, the nation became void of leadership as the government fled to Saudi Arabia. 

Since 2015, the nation has been ravaged by civil war, with the Houthi forces taking a large proportion of the west of Yemen and have been attempting to take the southern points of Taiz and Aden (which has been labelled as the temporary capital of Yemen). Neighbouring nations – in particular Saudi Arabia – were afraid of the threat that the Houthi would eventually overthrow the Yemeni government and run the nation. Therefore, they had to intervene; primarily through airstrikes. This aided the Yemeni government, but came at a great cost that is growing in seriousness – the well-being of the Yemeni people. 

Unicef stated that ‘12 million children in Yemen are in danger from war, disease and hunger’; ACLED said since the beginning of the war to October 2019, “over 100,000 (were) reported killed”. According to the Independent, by 2016 there were 3,000 Saudi soldier deaths– this is likely to be double that now. It is worth noting that the KSA backed forces are official, so the casualties reported are more accurate than that of the Houthi forces.  Arguably the worst thing about this war is that the Saudi-led coalition has been responsible for the most civilian deaths from airstrikes/combat. ⅔ of “all reported civilian fatalities during this period” were as a result of the airstrikes. The coalition force that was supposed to help the children, women and men of Yemen, have caused more casualties than the Houthi forces have. A coalition air attack in October 2016 is believed to be the worst case – roughly 140 people, 600 injured in Sana’a, with the coalition reviewing afterwards that they had made a decision based on misinformation (they assumed that a large proportion of high-ranked Houthi leaders were to be there). This is troubling- there are many infringements of human rights. One example of such is the case of the four journalists who were sentenced to death by a Houthi-run court as they were accused of “collaborating with the enemy (Saudi Arabia)”. In other words, they were accused of spying- Amnesty International said that the journalists were denied their “right to freedom of expression”.

One issue that has worsened due to the longevity and actual devastation of this crisis is the matter of personal hygiene. Living in conditions where having a roof over your head is a privilege, or having access to clean water should be the norm but sadly  is not .Having to wear the same clothes for days on end is the tough reality for many. This means that conditions for diseases to spread are fatally ideal. The two major diseases that have caused devastation to the Yemeni is cholera and Covid-19 – though cholera has been of a much greater magnitude and duration with about 4000 deaths. Cholera is a water-borne disease which is caused by bacteria – there are (on the last recording by WHO in 2019) over 2 million cases; this is likely to have intensified as of Covid since, but also due to continuous conflict between the Houthi and the Saudi-led coalition. 

On the British Red Cross podcast, Greg Rose was also invited. He explained what cholera is and how it works. Greg also stated that “treatment is quite basic (in normal conditions) … just requires rehydration of the patient”. However, Yemen has been hit hard due to “the breakdown of infrastructure…failed water systems (and) sanitation, if there is sanitation to start off with”. The nation has also had to contend with the  “displacement of people, so you get overcrowded displacement camps” – all of these issues combined have boiled a perfect situation from which cholera can thrive – a lot of people in one place, with limited prevention strategies. “You actually have to swallow a lot of cholera to create a disease” but “(in Yemen) there is so much malnutrition so this exacerbates the problem.” There were charities in place to aid the people, but the issue of Covid arising has made it extremely difficult for that to continue – many charities had to stop/reduce their help. Amassing at roughly 1,500 cases- at the time of writing (likely to be higher due to limited testing kits) – it has increased the troubles for a nation that seems close to disappearing.

The question is how is it that, in the UK, we seem to know more about the wars of Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and others – why not Yemen? Belquise brings up this question in the podcast with the British Red Cross – “Why is it (the Yemen crisis) not well known like what is happening in Syria?”. Even looking at the coverage by BBC, Sky or ITV (undoubtedly, some of the biggest broadcasters in the UK), there is a consensus that the coverage about Yemen has been minimal. Why is this? The biggest ongoing humanitarian crisis is underway in Yemen (and will likely be so for at least for the next few years). The Houthis are combating the coalition forces, many citizens are being killed, injured and/or displaced. The issue of cholera and Covid are rife in such conditions. Are the ‘West’ neglecting Yemen due to the size, its importance globally, or because it is not the Houthis who are drastically damaging the lives of Yemeni, but the ones who are supposed to be helping?

From personal experience, I only learned the severity of the situation in Yemen because of Jeremy Corbyn (former leader of the Labour Party). As well as him voicing it actively, my friend showed me pictures of the atrocities. However, there are many people I have met who still have not heard of what has happened. It is getting attention on Twitter (and has been for a while), but this hasn’t resonated with the bigger political forces in the world.

The UK has a very strong relationship with Saudi Arabia – this is well documented by Sky’s History episode titled ‘Secret Wars Uncovered: Yemen’. It documents at one point that the UK signed an arms deal, called ‘Al-Yamamah’. UK officials originally said this was a meeting about the Israel and Palestine troubles – but it proved to be something else entirely. This deal involved providing such arms that would make the Saudi’s defence much stronger, the relationship between the nations stronger, and the UK almost having a constant source of oil – for both parties, it was a win-win. However, what proves to be the real dent in all of this is what was found not long ago. On the ‘Secret Wars Uncovered: Yemen’, it documented that in December 2016, Saudi Arabia admitted to using cluster bombs, which are outlawed in most countries. But the bigger issue was that they were made in the UK – they were associated with killing many people through ‘outlawed’ arms- despite the UK saying they weren’t majorly associated with the war. 

Jeremy Corbyn voiced his frustration in 2019 in Parliament – “(the UN stated) by the end of 2019, 230,000 people would have lost their lives, of which 140,000 are children under the age of five.” Here, he was saying that then prime minister, Theresa May, was ‘allegedly’ pumping £4.5 billion into the coalition bombing – May deflected this conveniently by mentioning Corbyn’s ‘mishaps’. This caused a stir across social media/ the nation- there was a disagreement as to whether Mr Corbyn or Mrs May was right. Jeremy Corbyn has been voicing this issue for a while – in 2018 he remarked that the crisis was (and still is) “a human-made condition” and that if he was in power, his party “would be at the UN tomorrow presenting a resolution on how we would bring about an end to that conflict”. However, the Conservatives are still in power and even before the pandemic, they didn’t address the Yemen crisis to a great extent. 

It is the same with Trump – in 2019, he vetoed the US involvement in Yemen. He explained, “This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future” – it is in the best interest of his nation’s citizens. That is acceptable, but to suddenly have no potential solution to help the Yemeni, isn’t acceptable. 

There is no optimal solution that would be ideal for all parties involved – there will be many people (guilty and innocent) who will perish (through malnutrition, poor sanitation or directly due to the war). It is likely to take many years/decades to rebuild Yemen; the leaders of major countries need to find a way for the war to end. However, the world’s leaders also need to find a way to find those committing the crimes held accountable for such horrors (like how did they post WW2 with the Nazi party). And most pressingly of all, they need to do it before Yemen becomes a land which isn’t Yemen but is just no man’s land…

There is no optimal solution that would be ideal for all parties involved – there will be many people (guilty and innocent) who will perish (through malnutrition, poor sanitation or directly due to the war). It is likely to take many years/decades to rebuild Yemen; the leaders of major countries need to find a way for the war to end. However, the world’s leaders also need to find a way to find those committing the crimes held accountable for such horrors (like how did they post WW2 with the Nazi party). And most pressingly of all, they need to do it before Yemen becomes a land which isn’t Yemen but is just no man’s land…

“I just find it funny you can’t give a hand to Palestine,
But you can trade whole arms with Saudi Arabia”

(Dave, Question Time, 2017)

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