The war in Yemen: “It is a total catastrophe, but no one knows”

by Caspar Bovenlander

on July 14, 2017

This article by Caspar Bovenlander originally appeared in MO* on July 8th, 2017. The version available here has been translated from the original Dutch.



For over two years, Yemen has been plagued by a bloody civil war. While the world watches the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, no one discusses the situation in Yemen. Shoqi Maktary from Search for Common Ground (Search) was in Brussels to shed light on the issue. MO* spoke with him about the situation in Yemen and what needs to happen next.


“People say the situation in Yemen is bad. That is a myth. It is worse. It is ten times worse than what you read about it.” That is how Shoqi Maktary from Search for Common Ground starts his presentation at the University of Kent. He is invited to Brussels to shed light on the situation in Yemen.

What exactly is happening in Yemen?

In 2015, the Houthi rebels drove president Hadi’s government from Sana’a, after which Hadi installed his government in the Southern city of Aden. A Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia is fighting Houthi rebels. Indeed, the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran plays a significant role in the background of current events in Yemen. Meanwhile, violent groups benefit from the situation and continue to expand within local communities.

Since 2015, more than 10 thousand civilians have been killed. 3.1 million people are on the run. Others die from the effects of war, like the collapse of the health system, and water and food shortages. The UN estimates that since the start of the conflict 75 people a day on average are wounded or have died because of the conflict. 17 million people suffer food shortages and there are more than 40 thousand cases of presumed cholera cases registered, which could rise to 300 thousand by the end of the year.

Total destruction

In advance of his presentation, Maktary welcomes us at Search’s Brussels office to shed light on the miserable situation in Yemen. “We are talking about the total destruction of all the infrastructure. Schools, hospitals, and roads are all broken. The capital Sana’a has been cut off from electricity for the biggest part of the last three years. The life of every person in the country is touched by the conflict in one way or another. Companies have disappeared, and so has people’s income. Meanwhile, we face the worst cholera epidemic in the world. The disease spreads like wildfire. We are talking about malnutrition. We even see that people are dying from hunger, the country is on the brink of a famine. You can probably already define it as a famine based on the official definition, but this doesn’t happen […]. Yemen imports 90% of all goods. However, because of the embargo, it is difficult to import at the moment. Don’t fool yourself though, you can still find products in the stores. However, most people can’t afford to buy any of it. More than a million government employees haven’t received a salary over the last six months. The government doesn’t allocate a single investment and the construction sector has completely collapsed.” […]

Media-vacuum

“Yemen is a total catastrophe, but no one sees it,” Maktary continues. With that, he arrives at what is the primary reason for the prolongation of the conflict: 10 thousand people have lost their lives because of the war, but the world doesn’t know.

“The war is worse than anything we have seen thus far, but everyone remains quiet. The media do not report on what happens. Not just in the West, but also in countries throughout the region, such as Egypt and Jordan, people don’t know what goes on in Yemen. Nobody talks about the children that are dying because of landmines and air strikes. Nobody mentions the people that die because they don’t have access to a hospital. Nobody hears about the diabetic patients that die because they don’t receive their medicine. Nobody addresses the growing number of suicides because people don’t see an alternative. This media vacuum allows the warring parties to do whatever they want.”

While the eyes of the world rest on Syria and Iraq, Yemen is virtually ignored. Maktary has an explanation. “It is very difficult to enter Yemen. You have to get permission and a visa from Yemen and the countries in the coalition. Not many people and most definitely not journalists succeed in doing so. If you go to Yemen you need to fly via Qatar or Jordan. Those routes are very unreliable and unsafe. I think that is the main reason why no international journalists are in the field. On the other hand, I have seen journalists work in contexts that are much more difficult to access than Yemen. So why not in Yemen? Some of the locals write about Yemen, but most of the time it doesn’t find its way to other media.”

Even if the conflict doesn’t reach the newspapers in the West and other parts of the world, it is being covered in the Middle East. However, it is not the type of media coverage that allows Maktary to rest easy.

“Media in the Middle East has always been extremely political. Newspapers and television stations in the Gulf states are in the hands of the happy few. If you read a newspaper you need to know who owns it, so you can position the content. That’s why news is always quite one-sided. On top of that, Yemen is being used to provoke violence. The war is explained in terms of sectarianism, a holy war. This feeds hate in the country.’

Where traditional media aren’t a reliable source of information, Maktary finds crumbs of the truth elsewhere. “On social media, you see stories published by the people. That is the only media where the truth is still available.”

The Arab Spring

The current mess is in strong contrast with the widespread optimism that the country experienced during the Arab Spring. In 2011, the revolutionary wave that ran through the Arab world reached Yemen as well. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been in power since 1978, first in North-Yemen and since 1990 throughout Yemen, had to step-down.

“People were exploring a new Yemen. A country where wealth is distributed fairly and where everyone enjoys equal rights. This was a very beautiful moment in the history of Yemen. But nothing is left now. All dreams about human rights and equality have been taken from the Yemeni people.”

The most important question is whether Yemen can return to a peaceful and safe situation. This is far from an easy question. “The conflict is a given. That I can understand. But the search for an exit is much more difficult. It is something I can’t really grasp myself. People suggest the country could be split into two or more parts. But I doubt this is a solution.”

“There is more than just a political dimension to the conflict. The social fabric that makes Yemen what it is, is perhaps even more important. However, this is heavily affected by the war. The country is increasingly more divided. In one of our activities, we gathered people from to sit around a table and discuss a problem in their community. One of the participants said this was the first time in a year that he sat down with his neighbor. In a Yemeni context, this is extremely worrisome. In our culture, people discuss everything and nothing, all the time. The ingredients that make a nation are lost to us.”

That is what Maktary and Search address. “The nation has to be built again. Even if we find a solution at the political level, the divides in the country will remain. It is a process that will take at least ten years.”

Creative solutions

With Search, Maktary finds creative solutions. “We focus on local issues at the community level. We bring people from villages and communities together to discuss problems that implicate them immediately. We solve one issue at a time. If there is a water shortage in a village, we facilitate finding that solution. We make sure people bring their own ideas to the table so the locals can find a solution to their problem together. When the first problem is fixed we move on to the next, education for example.”

“That is how Search at the community level tries to build bridges between people. The downside is that communities risk ending up in their own little bubble. Therefore, we facilitate an exchange between different groups across the country, to bring solutions to other parts of Yemen as well. This isn’t simple because it is difficult to travel inside Yemen. That is where social media can play an important role. We often use Whatsapp groups to connect people from different backgrounds in the country. There are groups where people from 4 different parties constructively engage with each other. Through this approach, we try to maintain elements of what makes Yemen, Yemen, so we can continue to live together.’

Key

Not only is the conflict ignored by Western media; politicians don’t get involved either. “The international community should bring together the different warring parties and insist on finding a solution. However, this doesn’t happen because they aren’t under mediatic pressure. As long as the media remain quiet, there is no public pressure on the politicians to react. No one asks questions while the problem remains under the radar. When the problem gets even worse, people will start calling for action, at least from a humanitarian point of view.” […]

In April, there finally was a reaction from the international community. At a donor conference in Geneva, 1.1 billion dollars were pledged to aid for Yemen — only half of what was requested. According to Maktary, money isn’t the only issue. “With money alone, you can’t solve a problem. The funds need to be allocated in collaboration with the people, according to their needs. Often, there are restrictions on how you can spend funding, as a result of which people don’t actually have access to it. The funds need to allow people to import food and medicine, but it is often technically impossible to spend the money.” […]

The situation in Yemen causes little hope for the future. Still, Maktary remains optimistic. “There is always hope. Sometimes it is all you have left. At a local level though, we have seen successes through our projects. […] But [a long-term solution] won’t happen unless the media start to report on the developments on the ground. It is key that people all over the world learn about Yemen.”