By Will Porter
and Ala Kaymaram
Faced with starvation, conflict and disease, the population of Yemen is suffering the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth. After over two years of active conflict, wartime deprivation has put the country on the brink of disaster, with millions in urgent need of aid.
Many, however, are finding no way out of the crisis.
“It’s not like they have a lot of options to go somewhere else, because not a lot of countries are open to Yemenis,” said Mohammad Alwazir, a 28-year-old Yemeni accounting student at Eastern Michigan University. Several of Alwazir’s immediate family members still live in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city and a frequent target for Saudi airstrikes.
The United Nations reports that over 13,000 civilian casualties have been inflicted in the fighting since the Saudi air campaign began in March of 2015, but the indirect effects of the war have had much worse consequences for civilians.
Because of the destruction of vital infrastructure and economic resources, famine and disease now grip the country. Nearly four-fifths of the population are in need of aid, 11 million of them children, while the World Health Organization predicts 1 million cases of cholera in Yemen by the end of the year. Cholera is a somewhat easily treatable bacterial infection that kills by way of dehydration.
“It seems like it’s not that hard to treat, it’s just, where are you going to get the clean water when Saudi Arabia has destroyed all of the infrastructure?” Alwazir asked. “It’s all about that. A lot of people have died in the airstrikes and so on, but the roads are destroyed, the infrastructure.”
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, 2.5 million people are without access to clean water, including in Yemen’s crowded cities, a figure that could set the stage for a drastic escalation of the epidemic.
Basic municipal services, such as trash collection, have all but ceased, further complicating the situation.
“There’s nobody cleaning up the garbage in the cities, so the cholera is spreading very quickly,” said Haitham Almutareb, another Yemeni student at EMU. After living for nearly nine months under Saudi bombardment, Almutareb left Yemen in early 2016 to pursue his studies in the United States.
Particularly in Yemen’s mountainous northern region, there are major logistic obstacles preventing the distribution of food, fuel and medicine, largely due to the destruction of roads, bridges and other infrastructure by Saudi airstrikes.
Across the country, moreover, civilians are finding it increasingly difficult to commute to hospitals, putting any medical aid that’s still available woefully out of reach.
“There’s no fuel, there are no hospitals,” Alwazir said. “Maybe [before the war] the closest hospital to you was two hours away, but then it gets bombed and now you have to drive ten hours. Where are you going to get the money to travel that far—for the fuel, for the car? And now there are roadblocks, so a ten hour drive turns into a twenty hour drive.”
The war has destroyed or damaged 65 percent of Yemen’s medical facilities, according to the New York Times, cutting off access to medical care for more than 14 million people.
With American assistance, the nine-country coalition led by Saudi Arabia has also shut down Yemen’s major commercial ports, severely worsening the crisis for starving and diseased civilians.
“We can’t get any kind of drugs or antibiotics into Yemen,” Almutareb said, describing the impact the blockade has had. “Ports, airports, they closed everything, even the national airport. They’re under the control of the Saudis.” Without the blockade, Almutareb added, there would be no humanitarian crisis.
Throughout the war, the United States has helped the Saudi-led coalition with vehicle maintenance, mid-air refueling, logistics and targeting assistance, weapons and munitions sales as well as diplomatic cover before international bodies such as the United Nations.
Saudi Arabia, along with a coalition comprised by regional allies, began its bombing campaign in Yemen in March of 2015 in order to restore the rule of deposed president Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi rose to power on a one-man ballot in 2012 as part of an internationally brokered political transition deal, but was overthrown by rebels just two years later.
Since that time, the coalition has carried out what international human rights groups have described as indiscriminate airstrikes on crowded urban areas— bombing everything from wedding parties and funerals, to hospitals and farms.
“When they first started bombing, the first week was legitimate military targets,” Alwazir said, describing the initial phases of the war. “After, they bombed markets, they bombed factories, they bombed a lot of farms. It’s just accumulating, the shortages get worse and worse.”
With a volatile political landscape and shifting allegiances among factions, it is difficult to say what’s next for Yemen, but the suffering of the civilian populace is beyond dispute. Without the vital humanitarian relief sitting at Yemen’s ports, hundreds of thousands will die in the coming months, regardless of the war’s outcome.