Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1338, (30 March - 5 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The US-made famine in Yemen

US citizens should demand that their elected representatives stop US drone attacks and military operations in Yemen

This week at the Voices for Creative Nonviolence office in Chicago in the US, my colleague Sabia Rigby prepared a presentation for a local high school. She’ll team up with a young friend of ours, himself a refugee from Iraq, to talk about refugee crises driven by war.

Sabia recently returned from Kabul in Afghanistan where she helped document young Afghan peace volunteers’ efforts to help bring warmth, food and education to internally displaced families living in makeshift camps, having fled the Afghan War when it raged near their former homes.

Last year Sabia had been visiting with refugees in the “Calais Jungle” who were fleeing the Middle East and several African countries for Britain. Thwarted from crossing the English Channel, a large mass of people were stopped in this refugee camp in Calais, France, from which the French authorities eventually evacuated them, defying their careful solidarity and burning their camp to the ground.

As part of her high school talk, Sabia prepared a handout to show where refugees are the most welcomed. One detail astonished her.

In 2016, the US admitted 84,995 refugees, but Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, took in 117,000 new refugees and migrants in 2016 and hosts more than 255,000 refugees from Somalia. Yemen is now beginning to host the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. What’s more, the country is regularly targeted by Saudi and US air strikes.

Since we are also planning a week of fast and action in Chicago related to the tragic circumstances Yemen faces, we were astounded when we realised Yemen was a path of escape for Somalis fleeing the Horn of Africa, refugees of one conflict, stranded in their flight, and trapped in a country where deadly conflict is precipitating into deadlier famine.

After years of US support for former president Ali Abdallah Saleh, civil war has wracked Yemen since 2014. Its neighbour Saudi Arabia, a staunch US ally, became nervous in 2015 about the outcome and, with support from nine regional allies, began subjecting the country to a barrage of air strikes and also imposed a blockade that ended the inflow of food and supplies to Yemen through a major port.

This was accomplished with ongoing weapons shipments from the US, which has also waged independent air strikes that have killed dozens of civilians, including women and children. Pummelled by air strikes and fighting, facing economic collapse and on the brink of famine, how could this tiny, impoverished country absorb thousands upon thousands of desperate migrants?

Yemen imports 90 per cent of its food, and because of the blockade, food and fuel prices are rising and scarcity is at crisis levels. The UN children’s agency UNICEF estimates that more than 460,000 children in Yemen face severe malnutrition, and 3.3 million children and pregnant or lactating women suffer acute malnutrition. More than 10,000 people have been killed, including 1,564 children, and millions have been displaced from their homes, but worse is the groundwork laid for the far greater devastation of famine.

Reporter Iona Craig recently wrote in a publication produced by the humanitarian news agency IRIN that in the middle of a vast expanse of grey scrubland, a rapidly growing population of more than 120 families could be seen huddling under parched trees. Escaping the latest wave of conflict on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, they had walked two days to get to a camp southwest of the city of Taiz.

But on their arrival, the scores of women and children found nothing. No support from aid agencies. No food. No water. No shelter. The elderly talked of eating the trees to survive, while children begged for water from local farmers. A mother cradled her clearly malnourished baby in her arms.

Now comes word that on 16 March 42 Somali people were killed in sustained gunfire from the air as they set forth in a boat attempting to flee Yemen. “I took cover in the belly of the ship,” said Ibrahim Ali Ziad, a Somali who survived the attack. “People were falling left and right. Everyone kept screaming, ‘We are Somali! We are Somali!’”

But the shooting continued for what felt like half an hour.

The attacks on Yemen trap both Yemenis and fleeing Somalis in the worst of four developing crises which collectively amount, one UN official has warned, to the worst humanitarian crisis in the history of the UN. As of today, no one has taken responsibility for the 16 March strike, but survivors say they were attacked by a helicopter gunship. The boat was carrying 140 people as it headed north off the coast of Yemen.

Meanwhile, US weapons-makers, including General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, profit massively from weapon sales to Saudi Arabia. In December 2016, reporter Medea Benjamin wrote that “despite the repressive nature of the Saudi regime, US governments have not only supported the Saudis on the diplomatic front, but also militarily. Under the Obama administration, this translated into massive weapons sales of $115 billion.”

At today’s critical juncture, all member states of the UN must call for an end to the blockade and air strikes, a silencing of all the guns, and a negotiated settlement to the war in Yemen. The worst malefactors, the US and Saudi Arabia, must abandon their cynical manoeuvring against rivals like Iran in the face of such an unspeakable human cost as Yemen is being made to pay.

People in the US bear a responsibility to demand a radical departure from US policy, which exacerbates the deadly tragedy faced by people living in Yemen. Choosing a path of clear opposition to US policies towards Yemen, US citizens should demand that their elected representatives stop all drone attacks and military “special operations” within Yemen, end all US weapon sales and military aid to Saudi Arabia, and provide compensation to those who have suffered losses caused by US attacks.

Our group of activists long functioned under the name of “Voices in the Wilderness”, a campaign to defy US economic warfare against Iraq, a form of war through the imposition of economic sanctions which directly contributed to the deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children. Lost in a culture of hostile unreality and unbearable silence concerning economic warfare, we were evoking, perhaps unconsciously, the plight of refugees seeking survival. We didn’t succeed in lifting the brutal economic sanctions against Iraq, but we surely learned harsh realities about how callous and reckless US policy-makers could be.

We must ground ourselves in reality and in solidarity with the greater part of the world’s peoples. As our neighbours around the world flee in desperation across borders or within the confines of their own countries, we must continually educate ourselves about the reality of what US actions mean to the world’s poor.

Building towards a time when our voices may unite and be heard, we must raise them now in crying out for the people of Yemen.


The writer co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence in the US.

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