Why We Should Care About Yemen

by Mary Anne Mercer

Basic facts: Yemen is a country of some 30 million people, located at the heel of the boot of the Arabian Peninsula. It’s a country with a rich cultural and religious history. For over 2000 years, what is now Yemen was the center of a series of powerful kingdoms that controlled commerce in the luxury goods of the time —frankincense, myrrh, and spices. The first cup of coffee was brewed in Yemen, and the port of Mokha was once the center of the coffee trade. As described in both the Bible and the Quran, the famed Queen of Sheba ruled the area nearly 1000 years BCE, at the time of her famed visit to the wise King Solomon. The area is also claimed by some to be the home of Old Testament figures. In the Arab tradition, the capital city of the north, now Sana’a, was founded by Shem, the eldest son of Noah. The country is also a visual and audio extravaganza: in addition to ancient Yemeni settlements of unparalleled architectural beauty, the poetic music of the north has been deemed a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO.

But today, Yemen is starving.

In modern times, the country has struggled with poverty, due in large part to arid and mountainous geography, corruption, economic mismanagement, and more recently, depleted oil reserves. Then, in 2014, what began as an internal conflict turned into a David-and-Goliath war between the Houthi rebel group and Saudi Arabia, supported by the United States and a coalition of like-minded countries. Since 2015, the people of the ancient land of Yemen have suffered from ongoing, relentless air strikes, many of which target civilian structures: schools, hospitals, markets, farms, and water treatment facilities. Yemen needs to import most of its food products, and the coalition has also blockaded the Yemeni shipping ports, leading to dire shortages of food, fuel, and other essential items.

These assaults on an already poor country have brought about nearly every type of disaster know to humankind: over 200,000 people killed from violence that is, lest we forget, supported by U.S. taxpayers; the worst continuous outbreak of cholera ever recorded, the result of contaminated water; massive internal displacement of over three million people needing to escape the bombing; and destruction of two-thirds of health facilities. All of these catastrophes have contributed to famine, with 80% the population in need of food aid to live, and over two million children near the brink of starvation. Taken together, the bombing and the blockade have turned this country into the largest humanitarian disaster in the world.

People in Yemen tell us they would rather die of COVID-19 than hunger.

The latest blow has been the introduction of COVID-19. Yemen’s communal life styles and poverty have made social distancing nearly impossible. Severe water shortages make even regular hand-washing difficult. UN findings now suggest that in this malnourished population, 29% of people who are infected are dying, compared to the 7% global average. The pandemic pushes the country even further towards famine. What else can Yemen endure? As Aisha Jumaan, a Yemeni-American, describes it, “People in Yemen tell us they would rather die of COVID-19 than die of hunger, as it is a faster and less painful death.”

Much of the official Western world has responded with apathy to these phenomenal levels of suffering. The U.S., for the most part, simply denies responsibility for these crimes against humanity. The U.S. government provided modest levels of aid until March 2020 when, claiming a lack of cooperation by the Houthis, most aid to the Houthi north was withdrawn–including funding to combat COVID-19. Similarly, the World Food Program, on which millions of Yemeni families depend for their lives, announced in October 2020 that the number of people reached would be reduced by nearly one-third because of funding cuts. Initial available data from the Southern parts of Yemen, where 30% of the population lives, indicate that at least 100,000 children are at risk of famine — of starving to death.

Americans of diverse political stripes see our support for this pointless war as misguided and criminal. Thanks to a barrage of advocacy efforts in support of the Yemeni population, in 2019 both houses of the US congress passed a law citing the War Powers Act that would limit our military support to Saudi Arabia without the consent of Congress. That bill was promptly vetoed by President Trump. More recently, the Trump administration has pushed for sales of stealth fighter jets and armed drones to the United Arab Emirates, a member of the Saudi coalition.

We must care about Yemen. They are people suffering unbelievable trauma, and our country is instrumental in causing this disaster. The international human rights community recognizes the assaults on Yemeni civilians for what they are: war crimes. And it is widely understood that the Saudi regime would not be able to conduct this vicious war without both logistical support and arms sales from the U.S.

We must do more than care. Our president-elect Joe Biden has pledged to withdraw support for the Saudi war in Yemen. It will be up to us to hold him to that promise.