Yemen: will the world finally take notice?

20 October 2016 Elizabeth Bourne

            Photo: AFP Photo/Mohammed Huwais

Two recent documentaries have brought the horrific humanitarian consequences of the conflict in Yemen to British TV screens. 18 months after the outbreak of fighting, will Britain and the rest of the world finally pay attention?

Earlier this month the BBC broadcast the full version of Nawal Al-Maghafi’s film Starving Yemen, a documentary which reveals the severe cases of malnutrition and starvation among the residents of  Al-Hodeida, a port city in the east of Yemen as a result of the war. Channel 4 also recently screened Krishnan Guru-Murthy’s Unreported World programme Yemen: Britain’s Unseen War, which was shot in Sana’a and Al-Hodeidah. Watching both, I sat in tears (and I would imagine I was not alone in this), as one after another horrifying story of the impact of the food crisis on children in Yemen was told.

Watching the story of five month old Atan in Sana’a at the beginning of Unreported World, I could instantly feel the agony and fear of a mother and father who watch helplessly as their malnourished child struggles to breathe. Atan’s mother is so severely malnourished herself that she cannot breastfeed him, and he has developed gastroenteritis from the milk she gave him instead. Atan fights for his life on a crowded bed in a hospital in Sana’a where staff have to make tough life and death decisions every minute due to shortages in human and medical resources. Latest estimates from the UN state at least ten thousand have been killed since the outbreak of fighting in March 2015. We know that for the last 18 months over 80% of the population has been dependent on humanitarian aid, and that over three million people are displaced of whom 1.3 million are children. Figures are easy to roll off, yet it is the impact on each individual brought home by the documentaries which is the real story.

Footage from Starving Yemen shows ships that have been waiting up to five months to unload fuel supplies needed for cooking in Al-Hodeidah port. The port has been specifically targeted by coalition airstrikes as it is under control by Houthis who are also accused of selling fuel on the black market. But as Nawal points out “whoever is profiting, it is the fuel crisis that is contributing to the food crisis”. Although the documentaries focus on two locations in Yemen, the food crisis is taking place at a much larger scale across the country including in places like Taiz, Ibb, Aden, and Saada. Recent reports have pointed out that around 1.5 million Yemeni children are suffering from malnutrition, of whom thirty-seven thousand are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. These children are very vulnerable to diseases such as influenza which can be life-threatening to those with weakened immune systems. The problem is particularly acute in Taiz, a city in the centre of Yemen that has been besieged since the beginning of the war in 2015. Vicious ground fighting has disrupted basic service provision and led to continuous interruptions in humanitarian and food aid. Very little coverage has emerged of the situation there.

Global attention has had much to focus on in the last 18 months; the refugee crisis, Brexit, on-going conflict in Syria, terror attacks, and the US elections. It would be generous to say the war in Yemen has taken a back-seat in Western media discourse – for the first months of the war, despite the impact on civilians, the conflict was barely mentioned in mainstream Western media. With travel to, from and within Yemen extremely challenging for journalists, and competing conflict narratives controlled by belligerents, it has been difficult to get the human impact stories and footage needed to generate wider global interest – leaving Yemenis suffering in an unreported starving world.  Local media in particular has faced challenges in reporting as many journalists have been harassed, arrested and killed by various warring groups. There have been peaks in reporting - around the peace talks, and following the bombing of hospitals and the production of legal opinions on the legality of UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia – but the devastating humanitarian crisis has not hit home for the majority of the public.

This has been incredibly frustrating for the many organisations and journalists wanting to highlight the plight of Yemenis as a result of the ongoing conflict, not to mention those who continue to suffer. The impact of a near total blockade and widespread aerial bombardment and street fighting on Yemen’s infrastructure when 90 percent of the country is dependent on food imports was predictable. Yemen: Britain’s Unseen War and Starving Yemen have brought this to our screens. Recent coverage of the horrific bombing of a funeral hall in Sana’a has moved Yemen into the media spotlight. Now is the time for the international community to finally step up, stop selling weapons which could be used in the conflict and to urge all sides to come to the negotiating table.

Elizabeth Bourne is Communications Manager at Saferworld.

Find out more about our work in Yemen.

“For the first months of the war, despite the impact on civilians, the conflict was barely mentioned in mainstream Western media”

Elizabeth Bourne