by Kelly James Clark & Shania Mason
On April 22nd, hundreds of people gathered for a wedding in Hajjah, a village in northwestern Yemen. As they celebrated during the night, US bombs dropped killing more than thirty. Sixty-three people were taken to the nearest hospital; since the only two cars in the village had been destroyed by earlier bombs, some were carried on donkeys. Most of these victims were women and children; the bride being among the dead. Most died upon impact, including the children who had been playing outside the wedding tent as their parents celebrated inside. A compelling video shows a young boy clinging to the dead body of his father in the aftermath.
When it comes to the suffering and death of innocents, April 22 was nothing special in Yemen.
Due to human-made famine, cholera outbreak, and bombs, about 150 Yemeni children die every day; every ten minutes a Yemeni child dies from preventable causes such as malnutrition, diarrhea, and respiratory infections. Eighty percent of Yemen’s 27 million people, nearly half of them under the age of 19, struggle to live under the most desperate famine conditions. In the past three years, more than 3 million Yemenis have been forced to flee their homes. Little wonder that on April 3 UN Secretary-General António Guterres called Yemen “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
Because of Yemen’s ongoing civil war, exacerbated since 2015 by Saudi Arabia’s US-supported attacks, millions of Yemeni citizens, again mostly children, are struggling to survive.
While we know about the Syrian conflict and Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine, few Americans know and fewer care about Yemen and its suffering children.
The conflict in Yemen began in 2012 when the transition from former president Saleh to current president Hadi failed. At that time, Yemen, already the poorest country in the Arab world, experienced massive unemployment, suicide bombing attacks, and wide-spread food insecurity. The ensuing separatist movement in the south ensured Yemen’s spiral into chaos. This social and political unrest combined to spark Yemen’s civil war.
On one side of the conflict are the Houthi rebels and those who are loyal to the former president; these are the rebels who first began the fighting in the south. On the other side are those who support President Hadi, including what is left of the Yemeni government. Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists took control of the capital in 2014 and then tried to take control of the whole country. They forced President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia.
The conflict dramatically escalated in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia got involved, believing that their enemy, Iran, was backing the Houthi rebels. Since Iran had been supplying weapons to the Houthis, Saudi Arabia formed a coalition of nearby states and initiated a military campaign against the Houthis, joining the side loyal to the Yemeni government. The Saudis sought to reinstate President Hadi, who is still hiding behind their borders today.
While the Saudi government ostensibly seeks the reinstatement of Yemen’s legitimate ruler, it is, in reality, engaging in a proxy war with Iran. But their demonstration of power is doing more harm than good. In their attempts to weaken the rebel groups with air strikes, they are hurting countless civilians. One particularly destructive air attack destroyed water treatment facilities in Sana’a, the Houthi-controlled capital. Without this vital supply of clean water, cholera has swept through the people of Yemen like a tsunami. The outbreak of cholera is the worst in human history. According to the UN, thousands have died from the spread of the water-borne disease and over 1 million are infected with cholera and desperately require medical assistance.
In addition to deadly airstrikes, the Saudi coalition is also stalking vital Yemeni fishing grounds and has set up blockades to prevent food and supplies from coming into the country. Yemen relies on fishing for around 80% of its food supply, but civilians can’t take advantage of the ocean surrounding them without risk of attack by Saudi forces. The intent with the blockades and the attacks on fishing grounds is to starve out the rebel groups and their allies; however, it is innocent civilians who are disproportionately starved. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said over 8 million people in the country "did not know where they will obtain their next meal."
Children are the group most affected by the starvation and disease and the lack of basic infrastructure in Yemen. More than 3 million children were born into the war, and they have been “scarred by years of violence, displacement, disease, poverty, undernutrition and a lack of access to basic services”. Additionally, a UN agency said more than 11 million children – “nearly every child in Yemen” – were in need of humanitarian assistance. This dark list of starving children increases daily. More than 1.8 million children under the age of 5 are acutely malnourished.
Moreover, UNICEF has said that over 5,000 children of all ages have been killed or severely injured in the violence in Yemen. This amounts to “an average of five children every day since March 2015.” The terrible thing is that even if a number of children do survive the war, they will forever be scarred and traumatized by the horrors they have lived through at such a young age; sadly, PTSD is not restricted to adults.
With so many young and innocent Yemenis being bombed and starved to death, why don’t we hear about it?
First, the United States is partially responsible for the damage that Saudi Arabia’s coalition has done. While the coalition itself is comprised of neighboring Arab states, powerful Western countries support the coalition. The United States, for its part, has supplied the coalition with intelligence, advice, troops, jets, and bombs. The US has also directly assisted on some of the airstrikes.
With US assistance and equipment, Saudi Arabia has bombed water facilities, farmlands, food storage sites, funerals, weddings, and just about everything else you can imagine. Dozens of hospitals and schools have also been bombed.
On the day before Eid, a sacred Muslim holiday, the coalition bombed a group of farmers digging a well, killing at least 48 people including first responders and children. In 2015, another wedding was bombed with 131 dead, and a funeral was bombed 140+ people killed.
The list of US-backed Saudi air attacks that have resulted in the deaths of innocents is much too long, and the list of dead civilians is even longer.
We also don’t hear about Yemen’s suffering because we Americans see through a prejudice filter, through which Arabs are scarcely visible. As evidence: in a 2015 survey about 25% of Americans favored (and only 13% of Republicans opposed) bombing the Arabic-sounding Agraba, a city in the fictional kingdom of the Disney film Aladdin.
And since the US has no political or economic stakes in Yemen, it is even more insignificant. We care about Saudi Arabia because it has long sold us oil on the cheap, and as purveyors of cheap oil, we have willingly ignored the Saudi export of extremism and violence. Outside of Saudi Arabia, we rarely care about Arab nations.
Finally, many call Yemen’s war the “forgotten war” since it is hidden in the shadows of other world news such as the Syrian civil war and the turmoil in Iraq.
This “forgotten war” demands our attention because OUR weapons are killing innocent civilians, again mostly children. The bombs that killed and maimed civilians at the wedding in Hajjah were American-made. The same kind of bomb, the GBU-12 Paveway II, also destroyed the water facilities in Sana’a that led to cholera infecting the nation. Over 4,000 of these bombs were sold to the Saudis under the Obama administration and, in June 2017, President Trump suggested the sale of “over 104,000 air-to-ground munitions.”
If an Arab had killed a bride and thirty innocent people at a wedding in St. Louis, he and anyone who helped him would be called terrorists. Yet when Saudi Arabia bombs a wedding, school, hospital or funeral in an Arab country--with US bombs, jets and intelligence—we simply don’t care.
By assisting in the Saudi bombings and blockades, we have helped create “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” We are killing Yemeni children, but again, we don’t care.
The United Nations, led by the Secretary-General, is gearing up to respond to this crisis. Step one of their plan involves raising awareness about this human-made humanitarian disaster. Subsequent steps include the neglected but obvious: “Promote respect for international humanitarian law and human rights and advocate for protection of civilians.” Sadly, lack of caring for Yemenis breeds lack of respect for their basic human rights and protections, so we ignore them and let their children die. Finally, the UN seeks the “urgent cessation of hostilities.”
To that end—peace—we, the US, must first care for and then respect Yemen’s innocent civilians. If we don’t start caring about the damage and death we’re heaping on Yemeni children, they will continue to die at alarming but entirely preventable rates.
Kelly James Clark is Senior Research Fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University. Shania Mason is an Honors student at Grand Valley.