Window Shopping for Food

Earlier in the day, I heard a news report filed by a correspondent in Houthi-held Yemen talking about the blockade of the port town of Al Hudaydah that is responsible for importing 70% of the country’s food. The markets were apparently still operating, but the people were not buying because they had been priced out of basic commodities. They still went to the market “window shopping food,” as the reporter put it. She mentioned that many people felt the United States should do more because we had a hand in the perpetuation of the civil war there. I thought about the Salvadorean civil war that I had written about before, and I wondered about the truth of American involvement in Yemen.

Yemen’s civil war is all but forgotten, obscured by the wars in Syria and Iraq, yet the United Nations has called this the worst man-made humanitarian disaster since World War II. This is a country where 75% of the population — 22.2 million people — need humanitarian aid. 17.8 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from. 8.4 million people are at imminent risk of starvation. Severe malnutrition threatens 400,000 children under age 5. Barely half the country’s health care facilities are fully functioning, and 16.4 million people lack access to even basic healthcare. It is the home of the world’s largest cholera outbreak. Three million people have fled their homes in three years. From March 2015 to December 2017, 9,245 people were killed (5,558 of them civilians) and 52,800 injured (9,065 civilians). Yet there are very few average Americans who know a lot about the war, myself included.

The war began out of a 2011 Yemeni Arab Spring that ended the thirty-three year long tenure of its president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh’s deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi stepped up, and immediately things were rough. Hadi inherited a huge problem with a thriving, actively fighting Al Qaeda population. South Yemen continued to press for separation (the country has only been united since 1990). Many in the military were unhappy with Hadi’s ascension and remained loyal to Saleh. Corruption, unemployment, and food insecurity all plagued Hadi’s attempts to govern. The Shia Houthi rebel movement that fought against Saleh years ago began to gather strength, and they saw an opportunity to take advantage of the unstable government. They seized control of Saada province in the north. Although the Houthi are Shia, many Yemenis, including Sunni Muslims, backed the Houthi after they saw Hadi’s disastrous policies. Allying with former President Saleh, the Houthi then tried to take over the whole country, and Hadi fled abroad in 2015.

Believing the rebels to be backed by Shia Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states — supported by the United States, United Kingdom, France, and other nations — began an air campaign to restore Hadi to power. The United States specifically supplied warplanes, munitions, and intelligence for Operation: Decisive Storm. Coalition partners headed by Saudi Arabia bombed soldiers and civilians in actions that some say qualify as war crimes. Questionable actions continue today by the Saudi-led coalition under the poorly named Operation: Restore Hope. The opposing Houthi, however, are well-known for embedding themselves in civilian populations for protection. They show further disregard for civilian populations by shelling heavily-populated areas and laying land mines indiscriminately.

After the mounting humanitarian crisis, Saleh said he would negotiate with the Saudi coalition to end the blockades of major ports. This marked a split between Saleh and The Houthis who were outraged at what they viewed as Saleh’s betrayal and accused him of a coup. In December 2017, the Houthi announced Saleh had been killed fleeing the capital. In the meantime, rivals Al-Qaeda and Islamic State seized land in the south and began carrying out their own series of attacks against each other and others. As the country began to destabilize even more, the blockades tightened and food insecurity and the collapse of basic services accelerated sharply. When the United Nations warned that continued blockades could trigger a famine, the coalition eased restrictions, but the damage to the civilian population was already done.

By mid-June, the United Nations and the Red Cross were forced to withdraw their aid workers from Al Hudayah as they had reason to believe the United Arab Emirates were planning a large-scale attack on behalf of the separatists who had up until recently supported government forces. Similarly, Doctors without Borders suspended their operations there. The need in the past couple weeks has increased tremendously with no sign of relief, although the UAE has shown signs of backing down after the United States threatened economic consequences if they bombed Al Hudayah.

Why all of this interest in Yemen? It sits on the Bab al-Mandab strait that links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. Much of the world’s oil supply ships directly through there.

Last Thursday, Yemenis in the United States under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) received word that unlike some people from other countries, their TPS would be renewed. There are some conditions which means that while 1,250 will be allowed to renew, 2,000 will not because they do not meet the established residence and continuous presence qualifications. TPS is a program that allows individuals temporary stay in the United States without fear of removal for a certain period of time. The government grants TPS to people from other countries suffering from extreme conditions such as ongoing armed conflict or environmental disaster. However, despite the horrifying conditions in Yemen, no refugees will be allowed to enter the United States even to request asylum (except in certain very limited cases) because of the president’s travel ban that was upheld by the Supreme Court in June. The 2,000 Yemeni who do not meet the requirements for TPS renewal will be forced to leave the country.

Where the Yemeni refugees will go is uncertain. Their problems are not limited to Middle Eastern countries or the United States. Countries in Europe and Asia are becoming less open to accepting refugees. Earlier this year, five hundred Yemenis arrived in Jeju, South Korea, taking advantage of a Jeju law that allowed people to enter South Korea without an advance visa. Fearing an influx of refugees, South Korea closed their borders on June 1st. Last Saturday, one thousand protestors in Seoul took to the streets with signs saying “FAKE Refugees” and other slogans. Although only 91 out of 6,015 world-wide refugee claims were approved last year by South Korea, protestors and many others feel even this is too many, citing fears of terrorism. The five hundred Yemeni can expect a decision on their refugee status in six months, although with South Korea’s track record, things most likely will not work in their favor.

Doctors Without Borders is continuing their work in Yemen, as are the Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief, UNICEF and UNHCR (the UN refugee agency). For most of us who will not be going abroad, we can also volunteer to help the United Nations online with writing and editing (especially in Arabic), translation, administration, and other areas.


Photo of Yemeni city by Michele Falzone



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