Yemen’s Forgotten Children
by Ian Sinclair
31 December 2022
With Christmas and New Year very much centred around children, how many of us have given a thought over the holiday season to the children of Yemen?
I recently gained an insight into the horrific conditions in the troubled Middle East nation when I watched Hunger Ward. Released in 2020, the MTV documentary is filmed inside two therapeutic feeding centres in Yemen, following two women healthcare workers treating starving children in the midst of the war.
Just 40 minutes long, it’s a harrowing, heart-breaking watch: we see resuscitation being carried out on a baby, and the family wailing in grief after the child dies.
“These children are dying as a result of malnutrition,” Mekkia Mahdi, a nurse who manages the largest network of rural malnutrition clinics in North Yemen, explains. She scrolls through photos of children on her phone: “Amal died, Ibrahim died, Fatima died.”
While Yemen has long been impoverished, the military intervention by the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in March 2015 against the Houthi rebels, who had recently ousted President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, massively intensified the death and destruction. The fighting continues, with Saudi Arabia undertaking a huge bombing campaign, along with an air, sea and land blockade. “Conflict remains the primary underlying driver of hunger in Yemen,” 30 NGOs operating in Yemen, including the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam and the Norwegian Refugee Council, noted in September.
In October the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned the situation in Yemen remained the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. According to a November briefing from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), 17 million Yemenis, over half of the population, are estimated to be food insecure, with 3.5 million acutely malnourished.
“Malnutrition rates among women and children in Yemen remain among the highest in the world,” the WFP reports. “1.3 million pregnant or breastfeeding women and 2.2 million children under 5 requiring treatment for acute malnutrition.”
Sadly, there is no shortage of horrifying statistics highlighting the plight of Yemen’s children. An estimated 77 per cent of the 4.3 million people displaced in Yemen are women and children, according to ReliefWeb, the information service provided by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In 2018 Save the Children reported that “an estimated 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger” since April 2015.
By the end of 2021 the United Nations Development Programme estimated the number of direct and indirect deaths due to the war was 377,000. “Of the total deaths, 259,000 – nearly 70 per cent of total conflict-attributable deaths – are children younger than five years old,” the report noted.
Shamefully, the UK (and US) has played, and continues to play, a crucial role in fuelling the conflict, and therefore bears significant responsibility for the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.
Asked by Majella magazine in 2018 “What do you think the UK can do more in the realm of helping the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?” Alistair Burt MP, then UK Minister of State for the Middle East, replied “At the moment it’s difficult to see what more we can do.”
For once, a Tory politician was telling the truth. In September the Campaign Against Arms Trade estimated that since March 2015 the UK government has licensed at least £23 billion of arms to the Saudi-led coalition. However, as Burt intimates, UK support goes far beyond just selling weapons. “Every day Yemen is hit by British bombs – dropped by British planes that are flown by British-trained pilots and maintained and prepared inside Saudi Arabia by thousands of British contractors,” Arron Merat noted in the Guardian in 2019. Appearing in the Channel 4 documentary Britain’s Hidden War the same year, a former Saudi Air Force officer noted Saudi Arabia “can’t keep the [British-made] Typhoon [aircraft] in the air without the British. The pilots they can’t fly it without maintenance and without the logistics.”
We also know British military personnel are based in the command and control centre for Saudi airstrikes, and have access to target lists. And according to a 2019 Daily Mail report British Special Boat Service soldiers are on the ground in Yemen, operating as Forward Air Controllers, requesting air support from the Royal Saud Air Force. On the world stage, the UK provides diplomatic cover for Saudi Arabia’s ongoing slaughter. “The UK is the penholder at the UN over Yemen [the lead country on the security council, with the power to draft resolutions and statements], and some former Conservative cabinet ministers, notably Andrew Mitchell, say Britain has been protecting Saudi Arabia from criticism there,” the Guardian reported in 2018.
All of this extensive support is the reason Dr David Wearing, Lecturer in Lecturer in International Relation at the University of Sussex and author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, argued in 2018 “The reality is that Washington and London could have stopped the Saudis’ war any time they liked.”
As well as footage from medical centres, Hunger Ward also highlights an aerial bombing of a funeral, showing distressing camera phone footage taken by a survivor in the immediate aftermath of the attack. It was a ‘double tap’ airstrike, the second strike commonly understood to target those coming to the aid of the initial victims.
“The world needs to know the depth of the Yemeni people’s suffering,” the man pleads.
The problem is polling conducted by YouGov in 2017 found just 49 per cent of Britons were aware of the war in Yemen – something that should mortify everybody who works in the mainstream media.
Frustratingly, the rare times the war is reported on, the UK role is often omitted. For example, a 2022 episode of the BBC World Service Inquiry programme, titled What Will End The War In Yemen? and presented by journalist Tanya Beckett, made no mention of the massive UK (and US) involvement. One can only imagine the depth of ideological training and education necessary for a BBC journalist to ignore the UK’s enabling role.
Of course, some wars –and victims – are more newsworthy than others. Indeed, an analysis of the scale and quality of media coverage given to the Russian attack on Ukraine compared to the Saudi-led attack on Yemen would make an illuminating PhD research project. In terms of solidarity from Britons, Ukraine has been very lucky, with supportive street demonstrations, people flying Ukrainian flags from their homes and on their Twitter profiles, record-breaking donations to humanitarian organisations working to help Ukrainians, and warmly welcoming Ukrainian refugees to the UK.
Far from being apathetic, this shows the British public’s humanity and concern can be lifted to unexpected heights by extensive media coverage of injustice and suffering. With last year’s temporary ceasefire in Yemen having now lapsed, what we now need to do is expand our sympathy and outrage to include those in Yemen, especially Yemeni children, whose lives are being destroyed by the UK’s abhorrent foreign policy.
Hunger Ward can be watched for free on Pluto TV: https://pluto.tv/en/search. Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.