‘The children have a game called “One two three airstrike” in which they all fling themselves to the ground.’ These are the words of MSF emergency coordinator Karline Kleijer following her recent trip to Yemen.
By the start of 2015, tensions in Yemen had been mounting for months between the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and its supporters, and anti-government troops led by the Houthi rebel group. These tensions reached breaking point in February, when Houthi forces stormed the country’s capital Sana’a, detaining the President and key figures within his cabinet. On 26 March, a coalition of nine states led by Saudi Arabia responded to the President’s request for aid by beginning a campaign of missile strikes against the Houthis. Thus began a Civil War in Yemen which is still ongoing. The country has become a battleground, where civilians are at constant risk of becoming casualties of the war and children have grown so accustomed to almost daily airstrikes that they have turned them into a game. Estimates suggest that more than 5400 have died since the tensions began, while figures from August stated a further 1.3 million have been internally displaced. Despite the devastation, however, the war has received very limited coverage in global media.
The situation on the ground in Yemen is simultaneously complex and extremely troubling. The Houthis are followers of Zaidism, a branch of Shia Islam practiced by one third of the Yemeni population. Zaidis once ruled North Yemen and Houthis have previously campaigned , most notably in a 2004 uprising, to reclaim this autonomous region. Before the Saudi-led intervention, the Houthis had taken control of the majority of North Yemen, in addition to some key territory in the South. The population of South Yemen is predominately made up of Sunni Muslims. They outnumber the Houthi rebels and most have rejected the overthrow of government, maintaining support for President Hadi. With the help of Southern fighters, the Saudi-led coalition has taken back most of the South from Houthi control in the last 8 months, yet much of the North is still in rebel possession.
The Saudi-led coalition has therefore continued its airstrikes to oust the Houthis, but in doing so have killed civilians en masse. Despite their denial that civilians have been targeted, missiles have hit schools, hospitals, factories and markets. A recent Amnesty International report investigated 13 airstrikes carried out by the coalition in the north-eastern city of Sa’da between May and July of this year and found that between them, these attacks were responsible for some 100 civilian deaths including the deaths of 59 children. Another report, conducted by UNICEF in August, found that a total of 398 children had died in airstrikes since they began. The top UN humanitarian official in Yemen, Johannes van der Klaauw, has expressed the belief that these attacks on civilian infrastructure violate international military law. Further illegal activity may also be occurring, as the Amnesty International report documented the use of internationally-banned cluster bombs.
Circumstances for Yemeni citizens have been made even harder by the Saudi-led coalition’s imposition of a “de facto” blockade of Yemen by land and sea. While this was officially put in place as a means to defeat the Houthis, the fact that so few vessels have managed to reach Yemen is having a disastrous impact on the whole population. Even before the Civil War began and additional aid became required, Yemen depended on imports for 70 per cent of its fuel and 100 per cent of its medicine. Josephine Hutton, Middle East programme manager at Oxfam, summarised the situation when she said: ‘Civilians are in the firing line, not only by weapons but also by the ever-tightening blockade which is strangling the country’s essential services and its economy.’ Furthermore, the UN has now expressed concern that the country, already gripped by poverty, is now at high risk of famine. Of course it is not only the Houthi rebels who will be harmed by this, but all 25 million Yemeni citizens. Nonetheless, the Saudi-led coalition has not wavered in its tactics, arguably because the Civil War is being seen as something of a proxy for a wider power struggle in the Middle East. Houthi rebels have aligned themselves with the Shiite state of Iran; fanning the flames on the old geopolitical rivalry between the Iranian Government and that of Sunni Saudi Arabia.
It is worth remembering, moreover, that it is not only the coalition that plays a role in the airstrikes that are presently killing Yemeni civilians. The international community has given its permission in the form of a UNSC resolution backing the action. Despite questions over whether the Saudi-led coalition has broken international military law, consent of its actions has not been revoked. In the last 8 months, American and British missiles have both been used to target civilian spaces. The UK sold approximately £1.1 billion worth of military equipment to Saudi Arabia last year alone, and has recently sold the state another consignment of 500-pound “Paveway IV” bombs. It is only in the last few weeks that the British Government has begun to question its support of the coalition’s airstrikes. On Tuesday 10 November, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond admitted that a proper investigation needs to be launched into whether war crimes are being committed and civilians are being targeted. Hammond’s words come nearly a year after the Cameron government pledged support of the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which prohibits states from exporting weapons that would be used for war crimes. These are perhaps the first steps in acknowledging and attempting to end the horrors that have taken place in Yemen, some of which have been carried out using British weapons.
Although progress is slow, attempts are being made to arrange peace talks between Saudi Arabia and Houthi representatives. Even though there have been several failed attempts in previous months, there is hope that an end to this conflict may be attainable. Whether the promises of investigations and peace talks are met or not, what is clear is that the global media has little appetite for keeping its finger on the pulse of Civil War in Yemen. For the sake of the innocent civilians suffering as a result of this international apathy and dying in a war that they did not ask to be part of, it must be hoped that these promises are kept.
For those interested, Amnesty International has created a petition to stop the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia from the UK at this web address http://www.amnesty.org.uk/