Tuesday 16 October 2018

The forgotten war spawning a terrible humanitarian crisis

An injured survivor of Thursday’s airstrike on a bus carrying children in northern Yemen. Photo: AP
An injured survivor of Thursday’s airstrike on a bus carrying children in northern Yemen. Photo: AP

Mary Fitzgerald

The conflict that has given birth to the world's worst humanitarian crisis is one you're likely to have heard little about. More than three years of war in Yemen - already long the poorest country in the Arab world - has made it a place where the spectre of famine stalks the land with more than 22 million people, three-quarters of the population, in desperate need of assistance. Some 50,000 children perished due to hunger and related causes last year alone, according to Save the Children.

Yemen is also home to the world's largest cholera epidemic for more than 50 years - around a million people have contracted the disease.

Very conservative estimates put the death toll from the conflict at 10,000, with others putting the total number of fatalities as high as 50,000.

But Yemen's tragedy remains little known, its conflict rarely making headlines, partly due to the difficulties of reporting from there.

In late 2014, Yemen tipped into civil war after Houthi rebels seized control of its storied capital, Sanaa, and ousted the recognised government.

The conflict spiralled the following year when a military alliance led by neighbouring Saudi Arabia intervened against the Houthis, who are aligned with Iran. Caught in between a domestic fight overlaid with regional rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran, ordinary Yemenis found their homeland racked by violence, pummelled by Saudi-led airstrikes and subjected to a punishing blockade which has affected the supply of food, medicine and fuel.

On Thursday, an airstrike hit a bus transporting children from a summer camp in a northern part of Yemen, killing dozens. The International Committee for the Red Cross said a hospital it supports in the area had received 29 bodies of "mainly children" younger than 15, and 40 injured, including 30 children. UN secretary-general António Guterres has called for an independent investigation into the strike and called for all parties to "respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, in particular the fundamental rules of distinction, proportionality and precautions in attack".

Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, was more blunt. "Grotesque, shameful, indignant. Blatant disregard for rules of war when bus carrying innocent schoolchildren is fair game for attack," he wrote on Twitter.

The attack came a week after another Saudi-led airstrike hit a busy fish market and the entrance to the country's largest hospital in the western port city of Hodeidah - which is controlled by the Houthis - killing 55 civilians and wounding 170 others.

The Saudi-led coalition, which is backed by the US and other Western powers, has repeatedly denied targeting civilians and defended this week's deadly airstrike as a "legitimate military operation" carried out in retaliation for a Houthi missile attack that killed one person in Saudi Arabia's Jizan province the day before.

Short-range missiles have been fired at Saudi cities since Riyadh became involved in Yemen's war in March 2015. The coalition accuses their Houthi opponents of using children as human shields.

The past fortnight's attacks are not isolated incidents. The Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have already killed hundreds of Yemeni civilians in hospitals, schools and markets, prompting fierce criticism by human rights groups of the US and other Western powers who provide arms and intelligence to the alliance.

The war has ground on in the absence of any peace talks since 2016. The newly appointed UN special envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, told the BBC this week that if the conflict is allowed to continue, the international community could be faced with what he called "Syria-plus" in the years to come.

Griffiths is planning a meeting in September in Geneva that would enable representatives of the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Houthi movement discuss a framework for negotiations.

With the Saudi-led airstrikes causing most civilian deaths in Yemen's bitter war, human rights groups have called on Riyadh's allies to pressure them to pull back. The Saudis want to prevent the Houthis from becoming a permanent threat on their border but Riyadh is loath to deploy ground troops.

While the Saudi air war has done little to dislodge the Houthis, it has devastated the country. As has the recently tightened embargo. The UN has sounded the alarm that unless Saudi Arabia lifts the air and naval blockade to allow for humanitarian aid to be flown or shipped in, a quarter of the population will be at risk of starving to death in the next months.

The question is whether this warning - like so many before it - will go largely unheeded, plunging Yemen into even greater suffering.

Irish Independent

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