- Nima Elbagirsenior international correspondent for CNN based in London.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is deepening amid the pandemic and cuts to international aid from the United States and its allies, leaving millions of Yemenis facing famine after years of a brutal U.S.-backed, Saudi-led bombing campaign that has devastated the country. CNN’s senior international correspondent Nima Elbagir says what is happening in Yemen is not a natural disaster but a “man-made catastrophe” directly tied to U.S. policies. Elbagir says, “Not only is the U.S. profiting from the war by selling weapons to the UAE and Saudi Arabia,” but it is also ignoring the impact on civilians. We also feature her exclusive CNN report, “Yemen: A Crisis Made in America.”
AMY GOODMAN: More than nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations is warning millions in Yemen, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo now face famine due to the compounding crises of economic devastation, violent conflicts and lack of access to humanitarian aid. U.N. official Mark Lowcock said a lack of funding for humanitarian relief has pushed already-precarious populations to the brink of starvation. In Yemen, where 80% of the population depends on humanitarian aid, the United States, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have all slashed aid to the country. This comes as the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition continues to bomb Yemen, where millions face hunger, disease and extreme poverty in what’s been called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, even before the pandemic.
In a moment, we’ll talk about the crisis in Yemen with Sudanese journalist Nima Elbagir. She was named the 2020 Royal Television Society Television Journalist of the Year. She’s a senior international correspondent for CNN. But first, we’re turning to her report for CNN called “Yemen: A Crisis Made in America.”
NIMA ELBAGIR: In this packed children’s ward in the main Abs Hospital in the north of Yemen, anxious mothers vie for attention as Dr. Ali Al Ashwal does his rounds.
This little girl is named Hafsa. Her mother tells the doctor Hafsa has five brothers, all malnourished. But Hafsa is the only one they can afford the medicine for.
DR. ALI AL ASHWAL: [translated] How is he today?
NIMA ELBAGIR: This mother of an 8-month-old tells Dr. Al Ashwal her little boy can no longer lift up his head. He’s too weak. His little belly is painfully swollen, a telltale sign of acute malnutrition.
DR. ALI AL ASHWAL: [translated] This is a tragedy. A family of 10 are all squeezed into one room. Four of her children, in three years, dead from malnutrition.
NIMA ELBAGIR: Rows and rows of hungry children, their bodies so stripped of fat that every move is agony. Hard to believe, but these are the lucky ones. These are the children whose parents can afford the car journey to the hospital.
DR. ALI AL ASHWAL: [translated] These are all the patients we admitted. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 cases, just on the first day of September.
NIMA ELBAGIR: Even for Yemen, this is not the norm. Every day brings dozens more patients.
DR. ALI AL ASHWAL: [translated] And here you have death, just one day after we admitted her.
NIMA ELBAGIR: And more death. This patient died this week, a 1-year-old called Fatma. It’s very hard to keep track of exact figures for child deaths, because so many of the children don’t even make it to the hospital. All the doctor knows is that things are getting worse.
DR. ALI AL ASHWAL: [translated] In August and September, our cases have spiked very clearly, most likely because of the withdrawal of support from the NGOs and other centers having to close due to lack of funding.
NIMA ELBAGIR: Why is that? That lack of funding that Dr. Al Ashwal was talking about. Eighty percent of the 30 million population in Yemen is reliant on aid, the majority of whom live in the Ansarullah Houthi-controlled north. The Houthis, seeking to control the flow of aid, placed restrictions on U.N. agencies in areas under their control.
In March, the U.S. suspended much of its aid to the north, citing concerns over Houthi misappropriation. Two other key donors — the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — have also drawn down. The U.S., UAE and Saudi Arabia have all slashed their Yemen aid spend, the U.S. spend dropping from almost a billion to 411 million, Saudi from over a billion to half that, with only 22.8 million actually received. The UAE has given zero dollars to the U.N.’s 2020 Yemen appeal.
CNN was able to obtain access to a confidential internal U.N. briefing document. U.N. agencies have confirmed to us its contents. In the aftermath of the drop in foreign aid, the U.N. has shuttered almost 75% of its programs.
In previous CNN investigations, we traced serial numbers on armaments in Yemen back to arms deals between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the U.S., proving that the U.S. government has profited from the chaos of the war in Yemen. And aid agencies tell us that the aid drawdown threatens to wreak even more havoc.
Mushiraya Farah pushes her disabled son in a wheelchair. Mushiraya used to receive support through a U.N.-funded program. Now she can’t even afford to get her son, Asim, to hospital. Malnutrition has left Asim mentally disabled, and she has to choose between feeding him or paying for treatment. She carries him through the little alley that leads to the half-finished building site where she and other displaced families have erected makeshift shelters. Up until a few months ago, she tells us, Asim was like any little boy. But after the family were displaced from their home by fighting, now they live here.
MUSHIRAYA FARAH: [translated] I have no help. I just pray to God.
NIMA ELBAGIR: The aid suspension has driven the people of the Houthi- controlled north into deeper isolation. Yemen’s north could already be in famine, and we might not even know it.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the CNN exclusive, “Yemen: A Crisis Made in America,” as we turn now to London, where we’re joined by the journalist who produced that report. Nima Elbagir is an award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN. She was named the 2020 Royal Television Society Television Journalist of the Year. She also won an Alfred duPont-Columbia and George Polk Award. In 2018, she also received the International Center for Journalists Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work.
Nima, we welcome you to Democracy Now! This is a powerful report, “Yemen: A Crisis Made in America,” as you talk about the United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cutting off aid to Yemen, largely, yet continuing, as you report, on this report and earlier ones, to find U.S. weapons on the ground in Yemen. Talk about the connection.
NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, it’s a very clear and — it’s a very clear connection. It’s an incredibly egregious one. When the war launched five years ago, the U.S. backed the Saudi-led invasion after the Houthis overthrew the legitimately — the legitimate, internationally recognized government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. What complicated the issue is, even after the Obama administration found that the Saudis and the coalition were not taking into account the impact on civilians or their deployment of U.S. weaponry, and they suspended it, when the Trump administration came in, they immediately overturned that suspension. So, there was a foreknowledge of the involvement and the impact and the ways that U.S. support entrenched this conflict. But for years now, we’ve seen another pattern start to come together, which is, not only is the U.S. profiting from the war by selling weapons to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who are both partners in the coalition, they also — the inspector general who was forced out from the State Department found, continuing to not take into account the impact on civilians of that deployment of U.S. armaments by the UAE and by Saudi Arabia.
We fast-forward two or three years of this extraordinary, controversial action, and then we start to see — we start coming across these numbers that are starting to drop. The UAE in 2017 gave zero dollars to the U.N. humanitarian assistance program, even though it was an active member of the coalition. Saudi Arabia gave a billion, but only really after the U.N., at the end of last year, had come back and pushed and said Yemen is slipping into famine. So, there was all this work and all this investment and all this, frankly, shaming of the U.S. and the UAE and Saudi Arabia to force them to put — to put right what they had made wrong on the ground in Yemen. And then, in March, Secretary Pompeo, the secretary of state, decides that they are going to suspend aid to those Houthi-controlled areas. And, yes, the Houthis are obstructing aid, and it is extraordinarily egregious, but the Houthis are not the only one. This is a war in which food and starvation have been weaponized by both sides. And that’s when we saw the drop, and that’s when we saw the numbers.
And what really spurred our reporting was that even the U.N. has not been able to access these areas to get a measure, a metric, of whether Yemen truly is in famine. And I don’t know if you know this, Amy, but famine is very much a scientific metric point, where it’s two out of every 10,000 people dying from hunger every day. In Yemen, because so many people can’t afford to even come to the hospital, they are dying at home alone and uncounted. So the world can’t even respond in the ways that it would if we were able to say there was a famine.
It was a very difficult report to pull together, because we were trying to pull this all remotely from London because of the coronavirus and the difficulties of traveling. But I hope that we managed to get across the key message here, which is this is not — this is not a natural disaster. This is a man-made catastrophe in which our governments are complicit.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Nima, you mentioned that a large number of people, the majority of people, in Yemen — and in the report you say so, as well — that the ones who make it to the hospital are the lucky ones. And in this piece, you document the ruinous state, conditions in these hospitals. So, could you talk about what has happened to the currency, the Yemeni rial, that has made not only food and drinking water effectively unaffordable, but also fuel, and how important fuel is to keep these medical facilities going and to keep many people, including children, alive?
NIMA ELBAGIR: So, in addition to the drawdown on their aid contributions, the U.S. has also been backing a five-year-long blockade by the Saudi-led coalition. What that means, effectively, is that most of the commercial vessels that were bringing food, that were bringing goods from the outside world to Yemen, have not been able to dock at that key point in Hodeidah in the south that is so heavily contested. So that means fuel, if you can find it, is incredibly expensive.
And in a way, even more torturously, there is food, but because the currency has spiraled and been devalued so many times and there is so little work available, people cannot afford it. We were in Yemen in January last year, before it even got this bad, and I think one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve witnessed personally is driving through markets that are full of food, and you see the people selling the food, the vegetables, the grains. They themselves are almost skeletal. And the food is rotting, because no one can afford to buy it.
And one of the stories we heard in the hospital, that we didn’t air but we included in our digital write-up, which was genuinely, I think, one of the worst things I’ve ever heard, is that the impact of that blockade has meant that the hospitals don’t have fuel. And now because the U.N. cannot afford to sustain the hospitals and they’re having to focus on just really life-saving measures, they’re not buying them fuel. So, when the electricity goes out, the equipment, the oxygen equipment, the breathing equipment that is keeping the most malnourished and the sickest children alive, that stops. And because there’s no electricity, there are no monitors to raise the alarm that that stopped.
And one doctor who spoke to us, who was — his voice was breaking. And he said that he had found children suffocated to death, because while they’re running around trying to tend to everyone in these overcrowded hospitals, if you turn your back for a moment on a child in a different room and the power goes out, that child dies. And what is so difficult, and yet so extraordinary, is these people continue to come to work. They turn up every day, knowing that they do not have what it takes to save these children, and yet they continue to try.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Nima, can you talk about — the Trump administration has not only cut funding to Yemen, the Trump administration also announced earlier this year that they would cut funding to the World Health Organization. So, could you talk about the work that the World Health Organization does in Yemen, has done in Yemen, and how its work will be impacted by these cuts?
NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, this has absolutely been a double whammy for Yemen, because the World Health Organization runs a lot of the malnutrition clinics, but it also runs all of the programs that are designed to battle transmittable diseases, such as the coronavirus. So, they are the ones paying the doctor and nurses’ salaries, because the Houthi-led government in Sana’a can’t afford to, but they’re also the ones at the frontline of the fight against the coronavirus. It is impossible, it is absolutely impossible, to get any sense of the numbers of the people that have died from the coronavirus, separately to the number of the people that have died from malnutrition.
But because of this — I keep saying “aid drawdown,” and it makes it sound so clinical. It is essentially, because of this strangling of the aid that gets through to the people in Yemen, it has meant that not only are they dealing with malnutrition, because the World Food Program has halved the aid that these people receive, so not only are you getting half rations and it’s reaching half the people, but it means that people are getting food every other month. So you have to plan one meal a day. Parents are not eating so that children can eat. But then, if you have the horrible misfortune of coming down with the coronavirus, there are no facilities that are able to support any kind of — I mean, we don’t have a cure for the coronavirus, but even just to keep people comfortable.
So, one of the things that we did to get a sense of this is we started speaking to gravediggers. And even they don’t have the numbers. All they can tell us is that the actual legitimate, government-licensed cemeteries are full. So now people are bribing gravediggers to find plots of land in places where other people cannot or will not venture, in dangerous parts of these cities, so that at the very least they can try and at least claw back some dignity in burying their loved ones, effectively, rather than leaving them to rot in a mortuary somewhere.
AMY GOODMAN: Nima, I want to go to a briefing that Mark Lowcock, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, gave on Tuesday to the U.N. Security Council. He called out the oil-rich Gulf states for turning away from the situation in Yemen.
MARK LOWCOCK: Several donors, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, who have a particular responsibility, which they have discharged in recent years, have so far given nothing to this year’s U.N. plan. It is particularly reprehensible to promise money, which gives people hope that help may be on the way, and then to dash those hopes by simply failing to fulfill the promise. More than 9 million people have been affected by deepening cuts to aid programs, including food, water and healthcare. Continuing to hold back money from the humanitarian response now will be a death sentence for many families.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the U.N. Under-Secretary-General Mark Lowcock. So, Nima Elbagir, if you can talk about — it’s even wrong to say the Gulf states have turned away from Yemen. They have not turned away from Yemen. They are constantly bombing Yemen. In fact, on Tuesday, President Trump stood with the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, and, of course, we know Saudi Arabia leads the bombing, bombs provided by the United States. And part of the deal didn’t actually have to do with the Palestinians, that was signed off on at the White House. It had to do with the United States selling the UAE F-35 fighter-bombers. Can you talk about the significance of, once again, these weapons deals to hunger and the devastation of Yemen?
NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, it sends a message, doesn’t it? It sends a message not just in Yemen, but it sends a message around the world, that you can do what you want to do as long as you — as long as you sign up for our key concerns. And a number of U.S. diplomats have described to me conversations that they’ve had with the UAE and with Saudi Arabia, and essentially the subtext of the conversation was, “Well, we have signed — the UAE has signed a peace deal with Israel. And we know that this is a key priority for the Trump administration. So, what more do you want from us?”
What we know about Yemen is that Yemen was a national security risk to the United States. It was home to the most effective franchise of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who at one point got very far in a plot to put a bomb on a plane and send it to the United States. That was always given as the excuse for the reason why the United States needs to continue to be engaged in Yemen.
What has happened with allowing key U.S. allies, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, to do what they have done in Yemen is that this hunger and this conflict has allowed not just al-Qaeda, but ISIS to become resurgent in Yemen again. Just this last week, there were a number of pretty effective ISIS and al-Qaeda attacks. The U.S. is measurably less safe because of what their allies have done in Yemen.
But one of the things that is really interesting, that so many of us that are covering foreign affairs are looking at really closely, is that the ICC, the International Criminal Court, has now said that the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, can begin to look into U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. And that is precedent-setting, because given what the IG report, the unredacted version, shows about the U.S.'s disregard for civilian casualties perpetrated by their allies with their bombs, there is a real conversation that is beginning about whether the U.S. is opening itself up for further cases of war crime prosecution on Yemen. And it's a pretty incredible case that is being discussed.
And yet, any time that you bring this formally in on record to the State Department or to Trump administration officials, they say, “Well, this is about American manufacturers, about American workers being able to make money out of American bombs being dropped in Yemen.” And what we have seen with the engagement that we have found, not just for this piece, but also for the previous investigations that we’ve done, is, actually — and, actually, I take heart from this — is that so many of our audience, whether it’s in America or around the world, don’t believe that. They don’t believe that money should be made over the deaths of innocent civilians halfway around the world, in a country that was already a humanitarian disaster even before this ill-thought-through intervention.
AMY GOODMAN: Nima, we just have 30 seconds, but we cannot leave without asking you about Sudan, where you are from, and your coverage of the women-led Sudanese uprising, but also Lowcock warning about the first famines of the coronavirus era hitting, among other places, Yemen and your own country of Sudan.
NIMA ELBAGIR: Again, this goes back to foreign policy malfeasance on the part of the Trump administration. This is an administration that continued talks to normalize with a sitting dictator in Sudan while demonstrators were being shot down in the streets. It is incredibly disheartening to see people who have risked so much be let down so badly by the United States. It really is.
AMY GOODMAN: Nima Elbagir, I want to thank you so much for being with us, award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN, based in London, whose Yemen report earlier this week is called “Yemen: A Crisis Made in America.”
When we come back, we go to the Greek island of Lesbos, where 13,000 migrants have been left homeless after a fire destroyed one of Europe’s largest refugee camps. Stay with us.