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Topics

A Mounting Humanitarian Catastrophe in Yemen: War Death Toll Tops 3,000, Fear of Famine Grows

StoryJuly 09, 2015
Watch iconWatch Full Show

Guests
Farea Al-Muslimi

co-founder of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies in Yemen and currently a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. In 2013, Al-Muslimi testified before the Senate on the secret U.S. drone program in Yemen.

Matthieu Aikins

award-winning foreign correspondent and fellow at The Nation Institute. He was in Yemen last month reporting for Rolling Stone magazine.


Aid groups are warning Yemen is on the brink of famine as the Saudi-led attack intensifies. More than 3,000 people, including 1,500 civilians, have died in Yemen since the U.S.-backed Saudi offensive against the Houthi rebel group began on March 26. According to the United Nations, 80 percent of Yemen’s 25 million people are now in need of some form of humanitarian aid, and more than one million Yemenis have fled their homes, as a Saudi naval blockade has cut off food and fuel supply lines for much of the country. Monday was reportedly the deadliest day since the fighting began, with over 176 people killed, including 30 people at a market in the northern province of Amran and 60 people at a livestock market in the southern town of al-Foyoush. To talk more about Yemen, we are joined by two guests. Farea Al-Muslimi is a co-founder of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies in Yemen. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. And here in New York is Matthieu Aikins, award-winning foreign correspondent. He’s a fellow at The Nation Institute. He was in Yemen last month reporting for Rolling Stone magazine.


TRANSCRIPT
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Aid groups are warning Yemen is on the brink of famine as the Saudi-led attack intensifies. More than 3,000 people, including 1,500 civilians, have died in Yemen since the U.S.-backed Saudi offensive against the Houthi rebel group began on March 26. A Saudi naval blockade has cut off food and fuel supply lines for much of the country. According to the United Nations, 80 percent of Yemen’s 25 million people are now in need of some form of humanitarian aid. More than one million Yemenis have fled their homes. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, addressed the crisis on Wednesday.

STÉPHANE DUJARRIC: The Office for the—for Human Rights say they are deeply concerned about the worsening humanitarian and human rights situation in Yemen, where civilians continue to bear the brunt of the conflict. The office now says that a total number of civilians reportedly killed and injured since 27th of March is 1,528 and 3,605 injured.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Monday was reportedly the deadliest day since the fighting in Yemen began, with over 176 people killed, including 30 people at a market in the northern province of Amran and 60 people at a livestock market in the southern town of al-Foyoush. On Tuesday, a Saudi airstrike reportedly killed dozens of Yemeni soldiers stationed at a military base. One military source told the BBC the base was hit by accident. Another source said the strike was called in to stop the soldiers defecting to the Houthis.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Yemen, we’re joined by two guests. Farea Al-Muslimi is a co-founder of the Sana’a Center or Strategic Studies in Yemen. He’s currently a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. In 2013, Al-Muslimi testified before the U.S. Senate on the secret U.S. drone program in Yemen. Here in New York, Matt Aikins joins us, award-winning foreign correspondent, fellow at The Nation Institute. He was in Yemen last month reporting for Rolling Stone magazine.

Farea Al-Muslimi, let’s go to you first in the Middle East. Talk about what’s happening in your country.

Farea, are you able to hear me? We’re speaking to Farea in Beirut, Lebanon, right now, and we may have a bit of a problem with the audio connection. Farea, can you hear me? And can you talk about the situation in Yemen? Well, it looks like he is not hearing us.

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: I can barely hear you, actually. There’s a problem with the sound.

AMY GOODMAN: Ah, go ahead, Farea. We can hear you now. Ah, OK, we’ll go to Matt Aikins. Matt, you have just recently returned from Yemen. Talk about what you found there.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, it’s, first of all, very difficult to get into the country, because there’s a full-on blockade by air, land and sea. And we actually had to smuggle ourselves in by boat from the neighboring country of Djibouti across the Gulf of Aden. Once we got out there, we found a country that had been completely paralyzed by lack of fuel, food, medicine. There’s no power in most of the cities that we visited. There’s a constant toll of airstrikes and, of course, very heavy fighting in numerous areas of the country. So, really, it’s a mounting humanitarian catastrophe, as you mentioned, and extremely dangerous situation that I think threatens to get worse as time goes on.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And can you talk about the Saudi blockade? I mean, it’s because of this blockade that there is this humanitarian catastrophe, in part because fuel and food supplies can’t get in. So what was the justification for the blockade? And where you traveled in Yemen, what did you see as its effects in the refugee camps, etc., that you went to?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: The justification that the Saudi coalition gives for the blockade is that it’s preventing deliveries of weapons to the Houthis from Iran. There hasn’t really been any smoking gun evidence of such deliveries in the past, but that’s the reason that they’re giving. Now, Yemen was a country that was essentially already in a kind of humanitarian catastrophe even before the war. It was one of the most impoverished nations in the region, suffered from very high levels of malnutrition, food insecurity, access to water, etc. It had 90 percent of its food imported. So this kind of blockade has a devastating impact on a country that was already very fragile. And many people believe that this amounts to collective punishment of the entire Yemeni people, that’s aimed at, you know, one particular group.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip from one of the Rolling Stone videos filmed in Sana’a last month. Matt Aikins was in the Old City the day after the Saudi coalition carried out airstrikes in the area. This is Yahya al-Habbari, a representative of the Old City in the Senate, describing the scene.

YAHYA AL-HABBARI: My heart is broken. And, in fact, you are foreigners, and you can see the actual area. It’s, you know, the oldest living museum on Earth. What was the hate behind these beautiful old houses? It is nothing. It’s only old people and young children.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: And who was there? Who was there when it was hit?

YAHYA AL-HABBARI: There are about four families.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Yeah.

YAHYA AL-HABBARI: Four families completely, completely dead. All of them. There are still three persons remain under the—under this disaster.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: And I’ve heard people here say that they also find America responsible for this. Do you think people feel that Americans are also to blame?

YAHYA AL-HABBARI: Well, I can—I can absolutely confirm that the United States of America, headed by idiot Obama, that they are 100 percent involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk further, Matt, about what you found here.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Well, that was an incident where a bomb—it was later actually discovered to be a 2,000-pound bomb by Amnesty International—hit a section of the Old City and collapsed four houses, killed a number of civilians. So we went there that morning. The bomb had come in early in the morning, and we came after sunrise and viewed some of the rescue attempts. People were pulling bodies out of the rubble while we were there.

And this is actually something that’s happening every day. But because it happened that day at a UNESCO World Heritage site, this ran on news broadcasts. It was one of the few instances that I think the conflict in Yemen has actually been of interest to the rest of the world. And one of my Yemeni friends sort of bitterly joked that the West was more interested in old houses than Yemeni lives.

AMY GOODMAN: We seem to have remade a connection with Farea Al-Muslimi in Beirut. Can you talk about the whole overall situation, Farea, in Yemen?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: Yes, Amy. It’s great to be back with you.

Overall, I mean, since the beginning of this recent war on Yemen, led by the Saudi coalition and started in last March, since then, the humanitarian situation in Yemen have badly gone even worse, more than it was in the past. Obviously, Yemen was going through a lot of problems in the past. More than 14 million people were already in a need for humanitarian aid. And when this war broke out, first what it did is it escalated the already bad humanitarian situation. It obviously made the scope for a political solution go much less than they were. And most importantly, it paralyzed the movement in and out of the country, at least compared to the past. Thousands of people have been killed, clearly, since this have started, and thousands have been injured. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to leave their houses.

The country is going—especially due to the aid and food blockage by all war sides, have been going through one of the possibly worst humanitarian situations in the world. And the blockage of food and aid and movement of ships was probably or have been the worst part of this overall war, and since it literally banned those who even can afford life from the ability of finding food in the market compared to the past. And, obviously, more importantly, I mean, in overall picture, clearly, every new day, this war is becoming less and less about Yemen and more of a regional proxy, while Yemen is caught in the middle of 25 million people currently going under multiple internal and external wars.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Farea Al-Muslimi, you have said in an interview that Yemen is, quote, "the Mexico of the Arabian Gulf." Could you explain what you mean by that and your sense of the international community’s response to the crisis in Yemen?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: Obviously, the current turmoil in Yemen, or the current chaos, is an outcome of an imposed international solution that has in Yemen been in force for the last three years before everything collapsed. And obviously, it was a transition that faked everything more than actually led a real transition. Everyone was faking their parts, apparently, except the gun dealers, since the story in the international was that Yemen was a success story. Clearly, there has been a problem going over the last three years.

What happened is it was an attempt, I think, for the international community to act in Arab Spring countries, especially after its failure in Syria and Libya. And Yemen was the "successful" model, between a quotation. But it was more of myth successful model, was left behind, I think, first collapsed into a lot of internal conflicts, and then it was neglected, obviously, for many—by many regional international sides, until it recently became—how do you say it? A fuel for a regional proxy war, and also, at the same time, a place where no one internationally or regionally is being held accountable about what they are doing there. Apparently, the current war has—a lot of war crimes have been committed in it, but no one has been held accountable or even have been called in.

And obviously, this luxury of always having not to deal with Yemen, as it is not a prominent oil country, it’s not an Israeli-bordering country, and that have made it obviously less important to the world or to the West, specifically, than it could or it needed. But apparently we are now witnessing a prize of that long-term decade neglection that left Yemen first under the oppressive rule of former President Saleh and his regime, and, post that, for a model of a transition that was very far from reality, let’s say, at its best.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, our correspondent, usually based in Cairo, went to Sana’a in Yemen recently and described for us there the extent to which Saudi Arabia controls conditions in Yemen, including access to the country and its airspace.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Just to give you a sense of how much control the Saudis have over the airspace, Yemenis who are flying into Yemen from the outside, the planes—where before there was a direct flight from Cairo to Sana’a, it now stops in Saudi Arabia. And so, the plane stops there. All the bags are taken off; they’re checked. Saudi Arabian security officials come onto the plane. They check the passports. And when I was there, one Yemeni with me was humiliated that this was happening, that he had to go through Saudi Arabia to get to his country. So they really are controlling access to the country, both for Yemenis, for the media and for—more importantly, for all the humanitarian aid and the fuel.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about Saudi Arabia’s interests here, what they’re doing, and—you talked about alleged war crimes—who you think is responsible?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: Obviously, all sides have committed that in many times, whether the blockage of aid, which was committed by sometimes the Yemeni government in exile, led by President Hadi, sometimes by the Saudis and sometimes by the Houthis themselves, internal, inside Yemen.

Overall, the Saudi Arabia has always enjoyed an unquestionable prominence over Yemen’s politics for decades. But in the last three years, it was busy first with rivalries with Qatar and Yemen and in other parts of the region, and then it was busy with Egypt and Syria. So it simply watched Yemen sink into the hell of what it is going through. But there has been, obviously, in Saudi, recent years, there has been the phobia of Iran, that made it, probably, let’s say, overreact to what happens to the—to what’s happening in Yemen or obviously to the Houthis’ rise to power in Yemen.

But apparently, overall, I think the absence of accountability, whether to the Saudis or to the Houthis, would have—or have participated in improving or in increasing the legacy of violence around the country, which has been going through a lot of increase since the immunity law was passed in Yemen in 2011 under the back of the international community. And under this law, obviously, all Saleh’s regime has been forgiven from what they have done or misdone over the last 33 years. And with that support of, let’s say, trading of justice for the sake of security, have obviously led many internal and external actors to be more violent in Yemen and to be less accountable, whether in war situations or even in non-war situations.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Matt Aikins, I want to ask you, as well. You talked about the difficulty you had in getting into Yemen, and Sharif described a similar situation. Do you think that’s what accounts for the relatively little press coverage that there’s been of the crisis in Yemen, here and possibly elsewhere?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Yeah, I think there’s no doubt about that. And the fact of the matter is, is that the Saudis were blocking journalists from entering the country. So, we were told that we wouldn’t be allowed in on either official humanitarian flights or shipments. And actually, a WFP flight, World Food Program flight, carrying a number of journalists from Djibouti, was actually blocked by the Saudis shortly before we left. So, they’re deliberately restricting press coverage of the conflict.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And what about U.N. officials? You also found, when you were there, that humanitarian aid workers were not there in as large numbers as you might expect, given the scale of the catastrophe.

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Yeah, I think the U.N. was very unprepared for this crisis, and they, as a result, evacuated almost all of their international staff. We were traveling in areas outside of the capital, Sana’a, in Amran province, for example, and we found refugees who were just living in the open without shelter, without water, without food. The only international agency that was really on the ground working with them was Doctors Without Borders, MSF. And they were incredulous, actually, that there could be this scale of displacement without any response from the international humanitarian community.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, one of the people that you—the video clip that we played earlier of the representative from the Old City concluded by saying that he blames the United States 100 percent for what’s going on there. And you pointed out, in one of your pieces, that you came across munitions made—remnants of munitions made in the U.S. that were being used by Saudi Arabia in their air war in Yemen. So could you talk about what you learned from people in Yemen about how they see the responsibility for what’s going on there?

MATTHIEU AIKINS: Sure. We found cluster bombs, for example, that are banned under the global treaty, that were used by the Saudis in Yemen, that had been—that originally come from the U.S. There’s no doubt that Yemenis understand that the weapons and the jets that are being used against them were sold to the Saudis by the U.S., that the U.S. is supporting this war with in-flight refueling, with intelligence and targeting. So, absolutely, Yemenis see the U.S. as being responsible. Often when we visit the site of these civilian casualties where women and children have been killed, a lot of the ire that people have on the ground was directed toward the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to Farea and to go back to 2013, when you testified in Washington on Capitol Hill about the U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. You spoke a week after your home village in Yemen was hit by a U.S. drone strike.

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: What Wessab’s villagers knew of the U.S. was based on my stories about my wonderful experiences here. The friendships and values I experienced and described to the villagers helped them understand the America that I know and that I love. Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time. What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America in Wessab. This is not an isolated incident. The drone strikes are the face of America to many Yemenis.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Farea Al-Muslimi in 2013 speaking on Capitol Hill in a Senate hearing on Yemen. Farea, that was two years ago. Can you talk about how the U.S. is seen on the ground there now and how what’s happening in Yemen compares to two years ago?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: Well, I mean, compared to two years ago, if you’re a Yemeni, you would absolutely think at least the number of countries were bombing Yemen by that time was still limited to one. And it was one you can—that has a parliament you can complain to. So at least it was—comparatively to what’s happening today in Yemen domestically and externally, it’s actually, sadly speaking, an OK days compared to now.

At the same time, I want to probably elaborate more on the idea of how Saudis are responsible or how the view that this is actually a war under the sponsorship of the United States of America. It’s not only, as mentioned in your talks earlier, that there is a general feeling in Yemen over that of all, but even in Saudi Arabia, there is a lot of feeling or relaxation of the overuse of force or overall on this war, because they feel they have the green light from the United States of America and from the United Kingdom and, obviously, from many Western countries. Last month, I was in Saudi, and I spoke to Saudi officials about the usage of cluster bombs. And guess what was their usual or their main response. That these are weapons that’s sold to us by the United States of America, and we can use them because they are sold to us legally in America. So that overall, you know, feeling, even by the Saudis, that they are backed overall, have made this war could go—go worse than it could have just been.

And more importantly, it have elaborated or increased the non-accountability overall of this war in Yemen, and especially by the Saudi Arabia. If at the moment—and that’s why at the moment if there is any power that can push the Saudis to behave in Yemen or to accept a ceasefire, it is definitely the United States of America. And that realization overall what influence the U.S. have on Saudis, which is probably the only country right now can have influence on Saudis, makes a lot of feeling, whether in Saudi or in Yemen, the United States as a larger sponsor of this war.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Farea Al-Muslimi, you’ve suggested that the likelihood of Hadi returning to Yemen is virtually nil. In other words, he will not be going back to Yemen. So what do you see as Saudi Arabia’s objectives? How can this war be resolved? Many people have suggested that at the moment, given the continuation of the war, the only people who are benefiting are Islamist extremists—al-Qaeda or the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: And obviously, but the issue in this is Hadi is a matter of tool in this whole larger war, obviously, whether in the eyes of Saudi or in the eyes of the bigger regional proxy war that Yemen is at least having an impact on. Obviously, to move forward, there is a deep realization, I think, in Yemen and outside Yemen, within the Houthis and even from the Houthis’ opponents, that one of the biggest obstacles facing Yemen right now is actually the current president, who have, in a big or in a way or another, paved the road, first of all, for the Houthis from the mountains to power, because a lot of his misactions, his insist on imposing removal of fuel subsidies last year and a lot of—and the imposement of an unpopular constitutional draft and unpopular division of regions, all of this misacts by him, obviously, makes his supporters, before his opponents, realize that the way forward in Yemen has to go through a removal of this man.

But yes, obviously, you know, this continuation of the war right now, as it is happening, with no state—legit state actor in Yemen or even government, benefits the group like ISIS and al-Qaeda. But this trend has been, overall, going the last year. And, two, since, I think, the Arab Spring was knocked down, the whole region, and not just Yemen, have been, you know, witnessing a wave of radicalization, a wave of picking guns on the expense of protester or protest failures. And this is, I think, mainly because of how the Arab Spring was knocked down. I’m not sure how the world can think it can sleep at night after it what did to the Arab Spring, which was, in a way or another, the biggest strike ever happened to ideological groups in the region, especially these regimes who are very unpopular. And there was a strong social movement in Yemen, but these regimes, in a way or another, did not move. Their tools, their bureaucracy did not change. And obviously they were unpopular and incapable of staying in power, but there was the new elite, or obviously the new masses of 2011 were not in power, and that, consequently, obviously, benefit the group of like ISIS and like al-Qaeda, especially with a lot of internal sectarian tension increasing by a regional fueling of guns and cash.

AMY GOODMAN: Farea Al-Muslimi, I want to thank you for being with us, co-founder of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies in Yemen, currently visiting scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. And I also want to thank you, Matt Aikins, again for coming into the studio, award-winning foreign correspondent, fellow at The Nation Institute. He was in Yemen last month reporting for Rolling Stone magazine.

When we come back, we go to Capitol Hill, where California Congressmember Barbara Lee joins us to talk about a new bill she’s put forward around abortion. Stay with us.

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