“Tell the world!” the old lady pleaded with me. “We are being slaughtered!”
A few feet away from us, in the heart of the Yemeni capital Sana’a, stood the remains of an apartment complex. It had been hit by two successive airstrikes only minutes earlier.
“They have destroyed our homes, killed our sons…what did we do to them?” the woman cried before collapsing into my arms, her embrace growing tighter as she wept.
Everywhere I went, from the Internally Displaced Persons camps to primary schools that had been turned into makeshift shelters, I was quickly surrounded as soon as people spotted my camera. Everyone offered the same plea: for someone to tell their story to the world.
This broke my heart, because I didn’t have the guts to tell them the simple, blunt truth: that beyond its borders, very few people care about Yemen. Despite horrific human rights abuses, including war crimes committed by all parties to the conflict, being documented for months, this war has not captured the attention of the Western public at anywhere near the level Syria has.
Yemen is under siege. A Saudi-led coalition has been bombing the country on a daily basis for nearly a year. For months now, a battle has been raging in Taiz, where the UN has accused Houthi fighters and their allies of blocking desperately needed humanitarian supplies to the town of 200,000. Meanwhile, Aden, the only area coalition forces have so far managed to “liberate” (in July last year), is beset by lawlessness. The conflict has spread across the entire country. Today, civilians are suffering in the fighting tearing Yemen apart, with casualties now topping 8,100, more than 60 per cent as a result of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. Twenty of Yemen’s 22 governorates are precariously poised on the verge of devastating famine.
And yet, while the Syrian tragedy occupies front pages and news bulletins worldwide, the humanitarian catastrophe engulfing Yemen for the past year continues to meet with indifference. It’s not hard to find news stories about what is happening there, but it is difficult to find a politician who puts it on their agenda or a voter who views it with any concern.
This is hardly surprising. Unlike in Syria, the UK and US are two of the primary causes of the problem in Yemen. Put simply, a coalition of the wealthiest Arab states have joined forces to bomb and starve one of the poorest, with the assistance of two of the world’s richest and most powerful powers.
In my five years of covering Yemen, international headlines have morphed from optimism to despair. In the early weeks of the Arab Spring, everyone was hailing “Yemen: the peaceful revolution”. Today, as the country reckons with its gravest crisis in decades, the main story has become “Yemen: the forgotten war.”
Refugees and IDPs
I’m continuously asked: if the situation is so catastrophic, why haven’t we seen Yemenis fleeing in their millions, like the Syrians? The short answer is that Yemenis are trapped. When the war began on March 26th, all of the country’s exit ports were instantly closed and a blockade imposed on the movement of people as well as goods, both in and out of the country.
Countries that once welcomed Yemenis without a visa, such as Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, have closed their doors. Anyone seeking a visa will soon discover none of these countries have functioning embassies in Yemen today.
Thousands of Yemenis have managed to flee to Djibouti by boat. Many do not survive the extremely perilous journey, while those who do are met with the most tepid of welcomes. With no official refugee camps in the country and hotels charging exorbitant rates, the majority return.
Some have ascribed the international focus on Syria to the presence of Al-Qaeda and Isil in the country. These are headline-grabbing organisations which capture the attention of the Western public. But this is precisely where the situation in Yemen is heading too
The same short-sighted mistakes that have brought Syria to the brink of collapse are now being repeated in Yemen. For instance, since the start of the conflict, the Saudi-led coalition has been arming the Popular Resistance group in Aden and in Taiz. Although the media keeps calling them “Hadi loyalists” (in reference to the Yemeni president, currently in exile in Saudi Arabia), evidence suggests many of their members are actually from groups such as Isil and AQ.
Indeed, as the war rages on, the country’s infrastructure and institutions are falling apart. Unemployment rates are at a record high, with business at a standstill jobs have disappeared, while almost half the country’s university students have dropped out, offering fertile recruitment opportunities for extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the newly-emerged Islamic State in Yemen.
Today, the country has become a lawless wasteland where militarised extremism is flourishing at an alarming rate, and it won’t be long before this turns into an international headache rather than a local one. After a decade during which Yemen was a main battleground of the US’s War on Terror, regularly held up as a success story in the media, the dark irony of the country’s descent into chaos, and out of the headlines, has not been lost on local observers.
Complicity in war crimes
The media disparities between Syria and Yemen were highlighted again this month. When a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Northern Syria was hit by Russian bombs, the uproar in the Western media was deafening, and rightly so. “It is certainly a war crime.” declared Andrew Mitchell, formerly Secretary of State for international Development, on the Today Programme the morning after. “Everyone knew it was an MSF hospital,” he continued, ”and so undoubtedly this goes against international humanitarian law.”
He was right, of course, but I could not help but note that no less than three MSF Yemeni hospitals had been hit by airstrikes in the past few months, one of which the Saudis have already admitted to. There was little coverage of them in the West, let alone outright outrage and condemnation.
Alas, this is not merely about Western indifference but about complicity and collusion. Last October, Britain and the US successfully blocked plans for a UN independent investigation into potential war crimes committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. This was a unique opportunity to hold all sides of the conflict accountable for their actions. Instead, Saudi Arabia has been allowed to investigate itself through its own internal commission.
Of course, this is not about denigrating the suffering of Syrians, which has been immense, but to highlight the forgotten, ongoing tragedy in Yemen and how the failure of the media to inform the public of the nature and extent of their government’s role in one of the world’s greatest humanitarian catastrophes today has made it much easier for the US and Britain to pursue their disgraceful support for an indefensible war.
So the next time you hear British and US diplomats express outrage at the heartless carnage in Syria – as they should – remember what they want you to ignore: that there is another nation, and another people, suffering just as much. Except that when it comes to Yemen’s tragedy, both Britain and the US are partly, but directly, to blame.