Beware the ghosts of the starved children of Yemen
BEIRUT — Following day-to-day events in the Middle East is a trying experience, as grown men and women ignore the pain they inflict on so many others. Yet we cannot ignore what is happening all around us, because 400 million Arabs cannot all emigrate to new and peaceful lands; 400 million Arabs cannot escape the death and destruction made by their own national, tribal, sectarian or ethnic leaders and their foreign allies, by finding shelter in gated communities with high-speed internet and 24-hour home-delivered sushi meals in the suburbs of Cairo and Amman, the foothills of Lebanon’s mountains, the coastal plains of Morocco and Algeria, or the hundreds of dazzling towers across the cities and city-states of the Gulf region.
Yemen — the forgotten war, abandoned land, and forsaken community of the Arabs — is the high point of this horror show. Overshadowed recently by brutality in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, Yemen has now poked its skinny neck and weary head above the landscape of Arab moral devastation. It warns us that it may soon make the shift from simply experiencing a wasteful and painful war to being a great moral and political crime whose damages will reach many other countries soon. This is because virtually the entire country may be plunged into famine if the port of Hodeida in the north is attacked by the Saudi Arabian-led war machine that is supported by Arab allies, the United States, UK, and others in the world who are eager to offer mercenary troops-for-pay. (The most recent offer reportedly is 40,000 troops from Egypt, which, if true, would add trans-generational amnesia, incompetence, and irresponsibility to Egyptian decision-making, given Egypt’s loss of some 26,000 of its troops while fighting in the 1962-70 civil war in Yemen).
Documentation this month by the United Nations, the respected International Crisis Group (ICG), and others warns that Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria are on the brink of famine that could impact 20 million people. Yemen alone already suffers the world’s largest food crisis, as 17 million people cannot get enough basic food and need humanitarian assistance simply to stay alive and healthy. Unicef says 460,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition.
The deeper tragedy is that Yemen’s situation is totally man-made, reflecting policy decisions in Saudi Arabia, Arab allies, the United States, UK, France and other governments — including some UN Security Council members, ICG reminds us — that have weaponized the economy, shattered Central Bank operations that have almost stopped salary payments and other routine economic transactions, and reduced imports into a country that gets 90 percent of its basic commodities from abroad.
Millions of families that have sold belongings and borrowed to the limits of their abilities will soon reach a point of collapse where they have to decide who in the family gets food or not, who receives medical care or not, who lives for another few weeks or not. It is particularly cruel that Yemen’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens bear the brunt of the current fighting. When I contacted Yemen scholar Sheila Carapico at the University of Richmond to seek her analysis of a country she has known and researched for decades, this is what she told me: Contrary to the Saudi accounts of their aerial bombing to fight Shi’a militia allied with Iran (Houthi rebels who are members of the Zaydi denomination of Shi`a Islam), “The casualties of the Saudi-led assault — the dead or dying from trauma injuries or neglect (starvation or deprivation of basic medicines) and those displaced by fighting — are disproportionately Afro-Yemeni, dark-skinned, poverty-stricken, Red Sea coastal people who belong to the Shafa`i denomination of Sunni Islam. They were already the least privileged members of a poor society.”
These helpless victims largely inhabit the westernmost Red Sea coastal plain, the Tihama, that includes all of Hodeida province and parts of the provinces of Taiz and Hajjah. They and the rest of the country will suffer new mass ravages if Hodeida is attacked, basic commodity imports decline even further, and war continues throughout the country. Ongoing, deliberate warfare has left millions of Yemenis destitute and desperate. They will join the growing pool of tens of millions of once ordinary Arabs whose lives and futures have been destroyed.
Another three or four million children could drop out of school — adding to the 25 million or so Arab children already in that condition. Millions more will suffer acute malnutrition. This desperate, helpless, hungry underclass — without rights or any escape from a guaranteed life of poverty for generations to come — will do anything just to survive, and retaliate against their tormentors who robbed them of their citizenship and their humanity.
They might support any extremist or terrorist group that employs their sons as foot soldiers for $200 a month, join any criminal gang that offers them illicit income, or set out on a frantic refugee trail to seek another week, perhaps a month, even half a year of continued life, somewhere, anywhere, but not in their own ancestral land where they are doomed due to no fault of their own.
Syria, Libya, and Iraq have shown us unambiguously how desperate, dehumanized people will behave in such situations. Yemen will be next if we let the war drag on, the assault of Hodeida occur, and our sense of conscience and collective peace-making remain frozen in the face of a criminal war of choice whose vulgar acts on all sides will one day prod an army of starving and orphaned Arab kids to scale the walls of the mightiest walled sushi palace. Most of the world’s news media, including many Arab media, will not cover the assault on Hodeida. So the poor who were invisible in life will also remain invisible in death. Only their ghosts will come back to haunt us one day. There is nothing in the world more frightening than the ghost of a starved child seeking retribution.
By: Rami G. Khouri
Rami G. Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative.
The views expressed in this article are the author's opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ODVV.