24 September, 2021

The Humanitarian Collective

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On the Verge of Extinction: Yemen’s Ongoing Humanitarian Crisis

For years now, Yemen has suffered from one of the most brutal civil wars in world history. An already deficient economy has been torn apart by conflict and after five years, the country is facing arguably the worst humanitarian crisis in history.

In October of 2018, a heartbreaking image of Amal Hussain, a severely malnourished seven year-old girl suffering the effects of the brutal Yemeni Civil War circulated the internet. A reaction of shock and horror at the frail and abhorrent state of the young girl flooded social media for days. And, just as quickly as the reaction came, the heart-shattering symbol of a war-torn country faded away; but people are still suffering– now more than ever. 

In 1990, the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) merged with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) to create a modern-day “unified” state of Yemen, the second largest country on the Arabian Peninsula. Unfortunately, this merger failed to heal the deep historical divides between the two nations. South Yemen was a product of British colonialism, while North Yemen’s history is void of Western or European influence. These fundamental differences between the two regions provided an already unstable structure for the country– one that would continue to be burdened by tribalism, corruption, and political tension.

Even before the start of the Yemeni civil war in 2015, its economy was extremely underdeveloped, homogenous, and had very little industry. Economically centered around relatively small oil and gas reserves and trade ports on the Red Sea, the nation was already one of the poorest in the world– especially after the 2002 downturn in oil prices, which rendered one of Yemen’s only economic resources less valuable. Food insecurity, youth unemployment, and uneven regional development burdened the country’s economy, already devastated by the 2008 financial crisis. As such, Yemen has been deemed the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula for since the dawn of its existence. Despite the efforts made by the Yemeni to call for more economically-literate leaders, there has been little industrialization cited within the country. 

The geopolitical makeup of the Middle East dramatically changed in 2011. Military coups raged all across the Middle East, overthrowing various regimes and ushering in the “Arab Spring.” The event created more instability within the Middle East, but it resulted in the transfer of power from Yemen’s former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to leader Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, upon regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain. Hadi was left with a country in chaos due to  the recent protests and thus had trouble combating food insecurity, unemployment, jihadist attacks, and government corruption.

Yemen has historically been governed by members of the Sunni sect of Islam, which make up an ethnic majority of the country as of 2020. A large majority of the world’s Muslim population are Sunni, with the second-largest group (roughly 10-13% of the global Muslim population) being Shia. The differences between the two groups are complex, but one of the most significant variations between the two is that Sunni Muslims believe that Abu Bakr– the Profit Muhammad’s father-in-law– was his rightful successor, whereas the Shiites believed that Ali ibn Abi Talib– his cousin and son-in-law– was Muhammad’s rightful successor. Ultimately, the Sunni majority got its way and Abu Bakr received the position of Muhammad’s successor. What was once a political movement by a minority with a different set of beliefs quickly evolved into a religious movement, and thus the Shiites were officially distinguished from the Sunni majority in the year 632. 

The Sunni-Shia divide has been the root of countless conflicts in the Middle East throughout history. For many, it seems like a never-ending religious clash and source of tension, as many Middle Eastern states are governed by religious (Sharia) law. Since Yemen is predominantly governed by Islamic law the tension between the two religious groups is still extremely prevalent within the country. Capitalizing on the weaknesses of newly-appointed President Hadi mentioned earlier, the Shia minority began to advance their efforts to overthrow the Sunni regime. From late 2014 to early 2015, the rebels took control of the Northern Saada province and areas around it. 

The movement has been led by a Shia rebel group, labeled the Houthis, which gained some backing from Sunnis who expressed discontent at the disorganized regime. After a Houthi attempt to gain control over the entire country in 2015, President Hadi fled a country that was rapidly falling apart.

The Houthi uprising was perceived by Saudi Arabia as an attempt made by Iran (a predominantly-Shia state) to gain control of Yemen through the use of a proxy army. Out of  fear of Iran gaining too much regional power, Saudi Arabia deployed troops to Yemen to crush the rebels with the backing of the US, UK, and France.

Saudi intelligence predicted that the war would last only a few weeks, but the Yemeni Civil war continues to this day;its five-year course has had permanent, devastating impacts on citizens. From 2015 to 2019, over 91,000 people were left dead or injured by the chaos and instability within the country. Over one million cases of cholera were cited– a drastic resurgence, and as of March of 2019, two million Yemeni people have been displaced. Right now, more than 24  million citizens are in need of assistance in order to survive. A staggering 130 children die every day and approximately 400,000 children are at risk of death from severe malnutrition.  

Yemen is now feeling the widespread impact of the war, which cannot be solely attributed to the country’s internal conflict. The United States and Saudi Arabia have imposed blockades on ports all over Yemen to stop foreign arms from getting into the hands of the Houthis, but with this effort came the blocking of food and medical supplies to Yemeni citizens. The lack of supplies coming in, paired with the airstrikes executed by Saudi Arabia on markets and hospitals, has led to an absolutely devastating impact on the lives of millions of innocent civilians. Yemen currently is experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. Despite the United States Congress voting in dissent of the war, President Trump decided to veto that decision, and has continued to provide assistance to Saudi aggressions in the country. In 2017 alone, 50,000 children were killed due to the blockades imposed by the US-Saudi Arabia coalition. 

The crisis will only be exacerbated by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly 50% of the population do not have access to clean drinking water, and the United Nations has documented only 675 intensive care beds and 309 ventilators within the entire country. As a country in shambles, very mixed reporting has been done about the number of cases within the country. As of May 28, the country reported around 350 cases of COVID-19 and 50 deaths in total. A representative from Doctors Without Borders has disputed that claim, saying that it was a gross underestimate and stating instead that a staggering 62 deaths had occurred at a single facility. The World Health Organization currently estimates that 30-40,000 lives will be lost to the ongoing pandemic. With recent cuts to UN and NGO budgets, there is no doubt that the country will soon be ravaged even further by a disease that has shaken even the “strongest” of nations. 

Amal Hussain passed away shortly after she made national headlines. Look into her eyes– see and hear her voice. And then think about the hundreds of thousands of other children that look just like her, who need help. Lean into the discomfort and pain you feel as you examine the girl in front of you and let her message burn itself into your mind until you feel that ultimate compulsion to make a difference in a country which may very well soon cease to exist. Yemen is going extinct and consciousness is only the first step to creating lasting change. 

How to Help: 

Donating to NGOs that are actively working on the field has proven to be the most effective way to put your money directly towards bettering the lives of the Yemeni people.

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Jessica Gold is a rising sophomore at Riverdale Country School in New York City. Over the past few years, she has cultivated a love for international relations and analyzing complex global conflicts as well as writing. She participates in Model UN and Debate, and is also plays on her school’s Girls Varsity Tennis Team.