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Tuesday, 18 May 2021

Humanitarian workers in Yemen say the worst is still to come

As the war in Yemen passes the 1,000-day mark, aid workers and diplomats say the humanitarian crisis is ongoing, with nearly 7 million people facing starvation and no clear solution in sight

Dina Ezzat , Dina Ezzat , Dina Ezzat , Dina Ezzat , Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 27 Dec 2017
People inspect damage at the site of air strikes in the northwestern city of Saada, Yemen December 20, 2017 (Photo: Reuters)

With the year drawing to a close, there seems to be little hope of a breakthrough in the current humanitarian crisis that has hit Yemen.

As of 20 December, the Saudi-led war on Yemen had been ongoing for 1,000 days, and workers in several diplomatic quarters and humanitarian organisations, including those of the UN, say it is nowhere near ending.

Indeed, one informed diplomatic source said the conflict “could well see some much harsher phases, despite some possible improvement in the restriction of humanitarian aid, despite various diplomatic attempts by the UN and other concerned capitals to promote a political settlement to the war there.”

On Tuesday, the office of the UN envoy to Yemen announced that, starting on Sunday, a team from his office had visited both Aden – the temporary capital – and Sanaa, which has seen more flexing of power by the Houthi rebels, the main target of the Saudi-led military campaign.

The mission of the UN diplomatic team comes at a time of intensified Saudi-led strikes on Yemen, with at least 40 civilians reportedly killed in recent strikes. It also comes as diplomats and humanitarian groups point to an expansion of the Houthi presence in Sanaa.

In the words of one European diplomat working on Yemen, “We are hopeful that the UN mission could set the ground for an agreement on the inspection process of goods and relief material that should be coming into Hudaydah port, in order to secure a Saudi commitment to the opening of the port to allow for the necessary foods and medicines to come in.”

She added, “I don’t expect that things would go much beyond that, because I don’t think that the key players, either in Riyadh or in Tehran, are ready for a deal on Yemen yet.

"In fact, I don’t think that Yemen could be resolved soon, given that the Saudis feel they have lost to Iran in almost every single battle, including Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The Saudis would not want to admit defeat in Yemen too, so they would fight a bit harder, at least for now.”

However, the visit by the UN team was announced as being intended to prepare the ground for peace talks. And a New York-based Arab diplomat said that the Americans have received “some kind of a nod” from the Saudis indicating a willingness to consider a settlement in Yemen “that would, of course, take into consideration the Saudi determination not to let the Iranian-supported Houthis take control of the capital in Yemen."

The Saudis see Yemen as their immediate backyard, and since the start of pro-democracy protests in 2011, they made a point of supporting Yemen's then President Ali Abdullah Salah. Saudi Arabia only agreed on him stepping down – and seeking refuge in the Gulf – as part of an agreement designed in Riyadh.

The Saudis had been hoping to have the Yemeni leader eventually replaced by his son. However, the failure of their plan, combined with the increased power of the Houthis, prompted the start of the Saudi-led coalition's military campaign.

The aim of the campaign was to undermine the Houthis and to reinstate the “legitimate Yemeni President” Hadi Mansour, who has been residing in Saudi Arabia for months.

Saleh, meanwhile, changed camps more than once, first entering into an alliance with the Iranian supported Houthis, then returning to the Saudi side. In early December, one day after returning to the Saudi side, he was killed.

The former president's shifting allegiences confused the calculations of Saudi Arabia.

“Today, what the Saudis seem to be looking into is a deal whereby the Houthis would not be completely abolished but would not have a big share in running the country either,” said the European diplomat.

“I think this is what they have told the Americans, and I think that the Iranians would eventually settle for this agreement – but the question is how much more time would pass before a deal is reached,” she said.

The war, which has been raging for nearly three years, has caused a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale in Yemen.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock appealed for the full lifting of the Saudi-imposed blockade in order to provide the necessary aid to the estimated 7-8 million Yemenis who are on the brink of famine.

The number of suspected cholera cases in war-torn Yemen has reached one million, according to an announcement made earlier this week by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In their recent statements, humanitarian organisations said that Yemen is facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with over 20.7 million people (80 percent of the population) in need of aid, including 6.8 million at imminent risk of famine.

The conflict, according to the same statements, has had a devastating impact on civilians, both directly from the violence on both sides and from its impact on Yemen’s economy and critical services.

The assessment of humanitarian and diplomatic sources does not excuse either the Saudi-led coalition or the Iran-backed Houthis from blame for the current situation.

On 5 November 2017, the Saudi-led coalition closed all land, air and sea ports in Yemen in response to the firing of a ballistic missile from Yemen into Saudi territory. While the Saudi government has since announced a partial lifting of the blockade, imports of vital food, fuel and medicines remain severely restricted to the rebel-held north, home to 78 percent of the population.

Humanitarian workers dealing with Yemen suggest that the Saudi blockade caused UN humanitarian flights to be grounded for over two weeks, also blocking deliveries of food, fuel, vaccines and medical supplies desperately needed for the survival of Yemeni civilians, and causing devastating spikes in food and fuel prices. Recent shipments are hopelessely insufficient to address Yemen’s needs.

According to the assessment of humanitarian bodies, Yemen requires 350,000 metric tons of food imports each month.

Statistics shared by humanitarian organisations working on the ground, including those of the UN, suggest that around 130 children die every day from hunger or disease in Yemen, and the ongoing blockade is likely to increase the death toll beyond the estimate of 50,000 children who died in Yemen this year.

The WHO announcement earlier this month that seven million people are on the brink of famine points to the severity of the situation.

On 19 December, 355 celebrities, Nobel Laureates, academics, politicians and other public figures came together to mark 1,000 days of war in Yemen and demand urgent action by world leaders at the UN Security Council to address the world's largest humanitarian crisis.

In a joint statement, they called on President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister Theresa May and President Donald Trump to take urgent action on Yemen.

The signatories urged the leaders of France, the UK and the US to do the following: ensure an immediate ceasefire; end all blockades on food, fuel and medical supplies; and invest in a new, inclusive peace process.

"The international community has failed to take the action needed to end this man-made catastrophe. Millions of Yemeni women, men and children feel abandoned by global leaders who seem to put profit and politics above human lives," read the statement.

"Throughout 1,000 days since the conflict escalated, quiet diplomacy has failed to curb violation after violation by the warring parties."

According to the New York-based Arab diplomat, it is hard to anticipate any serious attention being dedicated now to Yemen.

“It is so sad to say it, but I think Yemen will have to wait for 2018, and then we will see; maybe some mediation could work out.”

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