Tune into CNN International on Sunday at 11 a.m. E.T. for a full report on the Yemen war.
Saudi-led coalition carried out 200 airstrikes in days since talks collapsed, security sources say
Destroyed health system led to 10,000 preventable child deaths in 2015, UNICEF says
Dozens of schools and hospitals have been bombed. Foreign powers have carried out deadly airstrikes. Political chaos has created a vacuum for militant groups like ISIS to flourish and sieges have cut off rebel-held areas from desperately needed aid.
You might think this is a picture of war-torn Syria, but it is in fact Yemen, where a bloody civil war has created what the UN calls a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
But unlike Syria, the world’s gaze has largely missed a conflict that has left millions in need of aid and pushed communities to the brink of famine.
As such, many term it the “forgotten war.”
“It’s probably one of the biggest crises in the world but it’s like a silent crisis, a silent situation and a forgotten war,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen Jamie McGoldrick told CNN.
The health service has “completely collapsed” and “children are dying silent deaths,” McGoldrick said, as medical facilities continue to be bombed relentlessly.
Since the conflict began in 2015, an estimated 10,000 people have been killed, according to the UN.
Harrowing photos of children wasting away are undoubtedly the most telling images of Yemen’s war. UNICEF reports that 1.5 million children are currently malnourished in the country, 370,000 of them severely. On top of this, 178 schools have been attacked, according to data collected by the Yemen Post.
“The scale of suffering as a result of the ongoing conflict in Yemen is shocking. An estimated 21.2 million people, which constitutes nearly 80% of the total population, need humanitarian assistance. Almost half of those in need are children,” said UNICEF Yemen Representative Meritxell Relano.
The war itself
The conflict began in early 2015, when Houthi rebels – a minority Shia group from the north of the country – drove out the US-backed government, led by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and took over the capital, Sanaa.
The crisis quickly escalated into a multi-sided war, which allowed al Qaeda and ISIS – other enemies of the Houthis – to grow stronger amid the chaos.
The Houthis are backed by Iran and its members follow the Shia Islamic branch of Zaidism. Zaidis make up around a third of Yemen’s population and ruled the country’s north for almost 1,000 years until 1962.
A coalition led by neighboring Saudi Arabia began its air raids on the country in support of Hadi’s government in March last year.
Deadly Eid strike
Since peace talks in Kuwait failed in August, the Saudi-led coalition intensified airstrikes, despite vocal criticism from rights groups that the bombardments have been indiscriminate and constitute war crimes. The attacks have often hit civilian targets with devastating results.
On the day before Eid al-Adha – considered by many to be the holiest Muslim holiday – the coalition pounded a group of farmers digging a well in rebel-held Beit Saadan, north of Sanaa, killing at least 48 people, including first responders and children, according to three security sources in Beit Sadaan, who did not want to be named.
Abdul Malik Ali Wajeeh, a local resident and witness, lost his cousin, who was trying to rescue those buried in rubble from the initial strike.
“It’s not the first time rescuers have been attacked by Saudi airstrikes, and people are aware that could happen. But you can’t watch loved ones die and do nothing to help,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition, General Ahmed al-Asseri, told RT news that “all operations in the area were targeting Houthi positions and members.”
The attack gained international media attention after the UN put out a statement saying it was “deeply disturbed by the unrelenting attacks on civilians and on civilian infrastructure,” calling it one of the worst attacks in the conflict yet.
But the Yemen Post collated information from official sources that at least 69 other civilians were killed in strikes the following week, including several as they slept in their homes and others as they celebrated Eid. The media has been largely silent on these attacks.
Out of the headlines
Yemen is in general very poorly covered.
“It’s a complicated and messy conflict, it’s hard to report on well, and it’s hard to find a good guy and a bad guy,” said Peter Salisbury, an associate fellow from the Middle East and North Africa Program at London-based Chatham House.
“There are a lot of issues with accessibility – it’s very hard to get into Yemen during the war, and if you do, it’s not the easiest environment to get around in.
“It’s expensive and it’s not full of freelance journalists. It’s a hard to sell to editors,” he said.
‘Giant game of risk’
But the lack of coverage seems to be mirroring a general lack of interest in the international community.
“The Yemen war remains regional because there is no major international backer on the other side of the conflict. And the Americans and the UK don’t have any real strategic interest in Yemen, which is why they have decided to back the Saudis. For them, the strategic imperative in Yemen is really to keep the Saudis happy and to maintain a degree of stability in the Gulf,” Salisbury said.
The Syrian conflict is of interest in the West as it has bled beyond its borders, with ISIS carrying out or inspiring attacks across Europe and spreading its influence in other Middle Eastern countries.
The UK and US have shown no sign of stopping its sale of arms to the Saudis, despite mounting pressure to do so.
“There have been one or two occasions where the British arms industry wouldn’t have been able to survive if it hadn’t been for massive orders from Saudi Arabia,” Salisbury said.
“Basically, policymakers in the West see the world as a giant game of Risk, and they see more value to maintaining their relationship with Saudi Arabia than getting rid of bad PR over Yemen.”
At the Human Rights Council, which is currently in session, there have been calls for an independent investigation into the actions of the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis, both of whom are accused of committing war crimes.
These calls intensified after the Saudi-led coalition was removed from a UN blacklist in June that blamed the group for a six-fold jump in child deaths in the country. A UN official told CNN the Saudi government had applied huge pressure on Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to do so, though the Saudi government denied the accusations.
Riyadh accuses the Houthi rebels of recruiting child soldiers, and after a deadly strike that killed at least 14 children, it told CNN it was targeting a Houthi militant camp.
Saudi UN Ambassador Abdallah al-Mouallimi told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that he is certain his country was off the list for good following the announcement.
Mouallimi said some of the information in the UN report lacked accuracy and said the UN had been invited to send experts to Riyadh to discuss the report.
“We will do everything possible from our side to minimize casualties on our part,” he said.
Journalist Hakim Almasmari reported from Sanaa, while CNN’s Angela Dewan reported from London.