Making Sense of the Yemen Crisis
Words by Sukhnidh Kaur
July 12, 2020
Elie Weisel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate once said: “For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
It’s a powerful thing to acknowledge the suffering of one, let alone millions. But for the Republic of Yemen, a desert country perched at the end of the Arabian peninsula, there have been few witnesses. It was only recently that the status of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis as the worst in the world was revisited, demanding our attention. We now know that the region is facing dire conflict. But why has this happened? The second edition of Akademi Mag’s newsletter explores Yemen’s past in an attempt to understand how a country reaches the characterization of a ‘failed state’ - and how 28 million people get caught in the crossfire.
North and South Yemen have historically had tensions. A civil war took place in 1994, because people in the South - referred to as Southern separatists - felt marginalized by the North. The South lost, and a dictator, Saleh, took over as President.
In 2011, a series of pro-democracy uprisings took place in the Middle East and North Africa. This came to be known as the Arab Spring, and it led to regime changes across the region. Yemen was one of these countries, and a revolt forced the dictator, President Saleh, out of power. Yemenis, including the aforementioned Southern separatists and the Houthis - a rebel Shia group - had had enough of corruption and economic instability. Saleh was replaced by his deputy, Hadi.
However, President Hadi was not an efficient leader, either. Food insecurity, suicide bombings, unemployment, and turmoil continued to be rampant under him. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS started taking advantage of this instability and attempting to seize control over parts of the country.
Then a twist in Yemen’s historical plot occurred. In the midst of a rising crisis, Houthis - the rebels who once hated Saleh - realized that they could use his military power, and joined forces with him. In 2014, they took over the capital of Yemen, Sana’a. In 2015, they tried to capture the entire country. However, they faced pushback from the Yemenis who were allied with President Hadi as well as the Southern separatists. This led to the 2015 Civil War, and Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has had a conflict with Iran over regional dominance and religious differences for many years. One of the ways they engage in a cold war is by funding opposing sides in conflicts in other countries - like Yemen. Saudi Arabia claims that the Houthis, who are Shias, are being backed by Iran, a predominantly Shia country. Saudi in 2015, with President Hadi’s blessing, created a coalition of nine countries and intervened in Yemen. This was called the Saudi-led coalition, or SLC.
First, the SLC - backed by countries including the US, UK, and France - started bombing the Houthis. Then it imposed an air, land, and sea blockade on Yemen, cutting off access to food and creating a devastating famine (Saleh announced in 2017 that he would try and seek peace with SLC if they lifted the blockade. 48 hours later, the Houthis killed him). Water and sanitation systems stopped working, and so Yemenis are battling a cholera epidemic, with 80% of the population struggling to access water. Garbage overflows on the streets because there is no waste management system. As many as 1/3rd of airstrikes hit civilians at schools, weddings, funerals, and markets.
There is the alleged use of white phosphorus munition (which burns human flesh to the bone), child soldiers, and secret prisons. Extreme violence from the Houthis and the UAE has wounded and killed civilians, too. Most Yemenis are hungry, sick, traumatized, scared, and under constant threat of fatal attacks. The UN in 2020 said that 3/4th of its aid programs in Yemen are on the verge of shutting down, because of a lack of funding and the fact that the money that does come in may not be reaching the most vulnerable.
Amidst enforced disappearances, torture, illegal weapons, humanitarian aid blockages, and more, a question arises: Who is to blame? A 2019 UN report states that when the conflict subsides, all involved parties may be held liable for war crimes. This includes the governments of Yemen, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, the Houthis, and Western countries that assist the commission of violations. We don’t know the actual figures yet, but it can be concluded that the war, famine, cholera, and COVID-19 justify Yemen’s current crisis as a humanitarian catastrophe.
Want to know more?
To understand the larger powers at play, watch this Vox video on the Cold War in the Middle East.
Read here about Tawakkol Karman, a Nobel laureate, the face of Yemen’s 2011 uprising, and one of Yemen’s many fearless women activists.
Refer to this article to know about what’s happening in 2020, and why there is a ‘war within a war’.
The roots of the crisis in Yemen go deep, and the US is complicit. Read this piece on America’s involvement published by the New Yorker in January 2018.
Also check out the Yemen Data Project, a non-profit producing data for change.
What's Happening in the World?
A lot has been happening in the world. Here’s some stuff worth knowing:
Tech is turning into a domain for geopolitical warfare, and global tensions are manifesting through the strangest route - TikTok. Times Now
In June, a fire at OIL’s Baghjan gas well displaced thousands of Assamese locals. This month, hundreds marched to commit mass suicide as a protest, but were stopped by the police. EastMojo
Libya has been war-torn since its ruler, Gaddafi, was overthrown in 2011. In 2020, the conflict is escalating. BBC
11th July was World Population Day. We are 7.7 billion people today, as compared to 2.8 billion in 1955. Al Jazeera published an animation about how our population has grown. Al Jazeera
Did You Know?
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a poor Black tobacco farmer, was being treated for cervical cancer at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. At the same time, a researcher was collecting cervical cancer cells from the institution. When Lacks’s biopsy sample arrived at Dr. Gey’s lab, something extraordinary happened. Instead of dying out quickly like all other cells, hers started doubling every 20 to 24 hours - and they never stopped.
This sample was cultured into ‘HeLa’, the world’s first immortalized cell line. It has been used by scientists across the world for experimental research on cancer, AIDS, polio, gene mapping, and more for 69 years, and continues to inform biomedical breakthroughs. However, this medical miracle is also a testament to racial discrimination in patients’ rights. Lacks’ cells were harvested without her consent, and her family only discovered the immortalized cell line and its scientific and commercial use in the 1970s - by accident.
In 2013, Lacks’s granddaughter raised concerns about the publicization of the genome sequencing of HeLa cells and the implication on her family’s privacy, and the National Institute of Health took cognizance. In 2010, Rebecca Skloot wrote ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’, documenting the history of the HeLa cell line and the Lacks family. Here is a free PDF of the book.
Gem from the Internet
Do you ever see a compelling headline, only to realise that it comes from the Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, Business Insider, or a similar platform that requires a subscription fee to access articles? This tool allows you to bypass such paywalls on Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.
Message to the Reader
A message to the reader from Anish Gawande, writer and translator (and curator over at Pink List India):
"In many ways, we live in a brave new world. Perhaps for the first time since the student protests in 1968 kicked off a set of progressive global uprisings against authoritarianism and military rule, the world is witnessing young people across the planet stand up and speak out on issues that matter to us. There’s the dread of looming crises: social, political, environmental. But there’s also the headrush of being a part of something important, something that contributes towards a future where we throw the old rulebooks into the dustbin.
Our moments of introspection are leading us to fundamentally transform our engagements with power. Throwing out the rusty Foucault to focus on lived experiences, we are valuing the voices of those who engage with power with their identities and their bodies. For me, the biggest lesson we are learning is simple. There are no hard-and-fast rules, no constant logic or consistent rationality, that can govern our decisions. Like quantum physics overturned all conventional laws of Newtonian physics, 2020 is overturning our belief in the institutions we thought were sacred: the police, the government, the global world order.
Where do we go from here? Towards uncharted, exciting, terrifying new futures. Futures that I hope will be driven by a politics of compassion rather than high-school-debater “devil’s advocate” logic, a commitment to listen rather than an obsession with being proven right.
What's Keeping Me Occupied
Kahlil Gibran (pictured below) was a Lebanese poet and artist whose philosophical thought has inspired people for decades. In light of the difficult question of who to blame in Yemen’s crisis, I’ve been thinking of his poem, ‘On Crime and Punishment’, which undertakes the impossible task of attributing ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to people just like ourselves. Here is an excerpt:
Oftentimes have I heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and an intruder upon your world.
But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each one of you,
So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also.
And as a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent knowledge of the whole tree,
So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong without the hidden will of you all.”