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“Hell on Earth”: Yemeni Children Starve to Death as U.S.-Backed Saudi Blockade Devastates Nation

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Image Credit: CNN

The World Food Programme is warning Yemen is headed toward the biggest famine in modern history, with the U.N. agency projecting around 400,000 Yemeni children under the age of 5 could die from acute malnutrition this year as the Saudi war and blockade continues. CNN senior international correspondent Nima Elbagir says Yemen is accurately described as “hell on Earth.” Her latest report from inside Yemen details the devastating impact of the conflict on civilians, including widespread fuel shortages affecting all aspects of life. “We were utterly unprepared for what we found when we got there,” says Elbagir.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. The World Food Programme is warning Yemen is heading toward the biggest famine in modern history. The U.N. agency is projecting around 400,000 Yemeni children under the age of 5 could die from acute malnutrition this year as the U.S.-backed Saudi war and blockade continues.

We turn now to a shocking new report from inside Yemen by CNN’s award-winning foreign correspondent Nima Elbagir, who will join us after. A warning to our audience: The video contains disturbing images.

NIMA ELBAGIR: The derelict coastline of the north of Yemen, rusting hulks tell a story of war, blockade and devastation. For years now, the Houthi-controlled north has been increasingly isolated from the outside world.

We secretly traveled through the night by boat, after our previous reporting here led the government to deny us entry. On the road to Hodeidah port, we get a sense of the humanitarian disaster kept from the outside world. Along the roadside, hundreds of stalled food supply trucks with no fuel to move. In a country in the grip of hunger, their cargoes stand spoiling in the hot sun.

The Port of Hodeidah is the supply gateway for the rest of country. It should be bustling with activity, but today it is eerily empty — a result of the U.S.-backed Saudi blockade. The last tanker to dock here was in December. In the echoing silence, it dawns on us: We are about to witness the terrible impact of this blockade.

Desperate patients and family members trying to get the attention of Dr. Khaled, chairman of Hodeidah’s hospital. If he signs these papers, they get some financial relief for their treatments and medicines. He doesn’t get far before he is stopped again and again.

DR. KHALED SUHAIL: Nima, this is the pediatric emergency.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Since the Yemen war started six years ago, families have been in financial freefall. The fuel blockade has sped that descent into oblivion.

This is the main hospital for Hodeidah province, and we’re surrounded by doctors and nurses rushed off their feet.

DR. KHALED SUHAIL: This is a garden, our garden.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Is this is a normal day? Is this this busy all the time?

DR. KHALED SUHAIL: No, not the busiest day today.

NIMA ELBAGIR: This is not a busy day?

DR. KHALED SUHAIL: This is a normal day.


Dr. Khaled wants to show us some of his critical patients in the therapeutic feeding center. A 10-year-old girl whose growth has been so stunted by starvation, she could no longer stand.

Dr. Khaled says every hour of every day they are receiving more and more cases of severe malnutrition that are this advanced, because the parents can’t afford to feed their children. They also can’t afford to bring them to the hospital to treat them.

The U.N. says pockets of Yemen are in famine-like conditions. But it says Hodeidah is not considered one of them, because it doesn’t meet the metrics to declare famine. But Dr. Khaled thinks the reality on the ground has outpaced the U.N.’s projections.

The Saudi fuel blockade is biting. Malnutrition numbers are spiking. And at the same time, this busy hospital is running out of the vital fuel that keeps its generators running, which means that babies like Mariam, who doctors say at two months weighs the same as a newborn, would die.

Yemen has been devastated by a civil war which has pitted Iran-backed Ansar Allah, known as Houthis, against the internationally recognized government and a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition. We’re in Houthi territory, some of whose officials have been designated as terrorists by the U.S. for targeting neighboring Saudi Arabia. We’ve been granted a rare interview with a leading Houthi official. We must meet in an undisclosed location because, his aides say, of the threat of assassination. We ask him to respond to allegations they are escalating this war.

HOUTHI OFFICIAL: [translated] Not true at all. The battle is continuing. And it has not stopped.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Do you trust America to take forward negotiations to bring peace here in Yemen?

HOUTHI OFFICIAL: [translated] Trust must come about decisions. But, so far, we have not seen any concrete decisions being made.

NIMA ELBAGIR: You’ve spoken about being subjected as a nation to international terror. But three of the leaders within the Ansar Allah movement are designated by the U.S. as terrorists. One of your key slogans talks about “death to America.” How do you see this as pushing forward the negotiation and the possibility for peace in the future?

HOUTHI OFFICIAL: [translated] When we say “death to America,” they effectively kill us with their bombs, rockets and blockades. They provide logistics and intelligence support and their actual participation in the battle. So, who is bigger and greater? The ones who are killing us, or the ones who say death to them?

NIMA ELBAGIR: The Biden administration has announced it has withdrawn support for the Saudi offensive, but it comes after six long years of war. And for the children dying of hunger, it still hasn’t brought peace any quicker. Peace and help can’t come soon enough.

Over half the hospitals in this district are threatened with shuttering. This is one of them. They need urgent support, urgent help. Can you imagine what it would do to this community if this facility was shut down? Look at the chaos that there is already here — and that’s while it’s functioning.

For years now, the U.N. has been warning that famine is coming to Yemen. Doctors across Yemen’s north tell us famine has arrived. Another hospital witnessing wave after wave of children in the red zone, severe malnourishment. Impoverished mothers, desperate to keep their children alive, are forced to make harrowing choices.

MOTHER: [translated] Just to get to the hospital, I stopped eating and drinking, not even water, just to get him treated.

NIMA ELBAGIR: These doctors are keeping track of the numbers, spiking beyond what they ever imagined.

The doctor was saying, in 2020, this population, 23% of the children under 5 here were severely malnourished. In 2021, they think that that number is going to go over 30%. There is no doubt in his mind, he says, that they, here in Hajjah, are in famine.

Nearly three years ago, the U.N. Security Council condemned the use of starvation as a method of warfare, demanding access to supplies that are necessary for food preparation, including water and fuel, be kept intact, here and in other conflicts. That clearly hasn’t happened.

What’s more, the world has stopped caring. The U.N. needs almost $4 billion to staunch this crisis. They received less than half that from donors. Numbers don’t lie. But numbers also don’t reflect the full tragedy.

This is Hassan Ali. Ten months and struggling to breathe, he came into the hospital six days ago. He keeps losing weight, even with the critical care he’s receiving. Hours after we left, Hassan Ali died — one more child in Yemen that represents so much more pain. The doctors here are desperate for the world to see and to help.

Nima Elbagir, CNN, Hodeidah, Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: That report, again, by CNN’s award-winning correspondent Nima Elbagir inside Yemen. Nima now joins us from Khartoum, Sudan.

Nima, welcome back to Democracy Now! This is an absolutely devastating report. Rarely do reporters get in to show this. Explain how you did this.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, we had had an application for a visa in with the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government out of Aden for about eight to nine months, so from late — from autumn last year. And we just kept being given the runaround. They wouldn’t refuse it, but they also wouldn’t outright give it to us.

And at the same time, it was becoming clear that the situation inside Yemen was deteriorating much more rapidly than any of the aid agencies had actually, up until that point, believed. And so, we — our amazing senior producer, Barbara Arvanitidis, and our senior photojournalist, Alex Platt — made the decision, backed by CNN, that it was worth taking this risk and traveling by boat to the north of Yemen, through those waters that are patrolled by Saudi warships, and through those waters where the Saudi blockade is maintained from.

And frankly, even having read so much of the data before we arrived, we were utterly unprepared for what we found when we got there. It was — I don’t know that words can do justice to what the situation is like there. When the World Food Programme called it “hell on Earth,” I think that is the only way you can understand what life is like for Yemenis.

AMY GOODMAN: And hearing the devastating cries of the malnourished children, the infants, and those that have died and continue to die. What was Saudi Arabia’s response to this report?

NIMA ELBAGIR: We didn’t receive one. We didn’t receive an on-the-record report. After the piece first aired, minutes later, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Princess Reema bint Bandar, released a flood of commentary to the Saudi-based, English-language newspaper, Arab News, speaking about how the Houthis — what their role was in this, saying that the Houthis didn’t want peace, but, fundamentally, not engaging with the basic — with the basic — foundation of our reporting, which is that a Saudi blockade, that has stopped fuel tankers from going in for over two months, is exacerbating the financial and humanitarian crisis and is bringing the country over the precipice into oblivion.

And by the way, the United States has also not responded in a very clear manner to us as to whether they continue to support this blockade, because the blockade exists because, at the start of the war, then-President Obama and now-President Biden allowed the Saudi-led coalition to blockade land, sea and air ports into Yemen. So, this exists because of the acquiescence of the United States. And the United States has not engaged with us in any way on the impact of that.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, how has the U.S. responded to this report?

NIMA ELBAGIR: They denied the basic premise of our reporting, which is that these ships had been blocked from entry into Hodeidah port and were in international waters. But these waters, at the moment, are patrolled by the Saudi-led coalition and controlled by the Saudi-led coalition further north, off the Saudi Port of Jizan. They told us that in spite of the evidence that we show in that reporting and in spite of the screen grabs that we have online showing where they are on independent commercial vessel-tracking apps, that actually this wasn’t true, that these ships were off the Port of Hodeidah and that the flow of food remains unimpeded through the Port of Hodeidah — which, again, is categorically not true. And this is from the U.S. envoy to Yemen. This is the person who is supposed to be pushing for a peaceful solution to the situation there.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is the new U.S. special envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking?

NIMA ELBAGIR: Mm-hmm, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on Thursday, USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development, which is now [sic] headed by Samantha Power, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, notified Congress that it would resume some aid to Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, reversing the Trump-era policy. But humanitarian groups say Yemenis need far more help. Talk about the significance of this.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, the issue is: What are you going to deliver aid with, if there is no fuel? And we’re not — I mean, this is not an issue that’s up for debate. There’s a U.N. resolution, Resolution 2417, which Ms. Power should be very aware of, given the role that she played for the U.S. in the U.N., that says that not only should states be wary and fight against the use of starvation as a weapon of war, but that states must also allow for the means of food delivery systems, for the means of food preparation systems. And that means that access to fuel and water are critical. And if you deny that access, then, essentially, you are engaging in the use of starvation as a weapon of war.

And I find it slightly concerning that — you know, of course it’s meaningful that aid is resuming to Houthi areas. But many aid agencies, including the U.N., actually are reliant on the import of food and supporting Yemenis in access to that imported food. Again, when you import food, it arrives at the Port of Hodeidah. How are you getting it to the population without fuel?

AMY GOODMAN: And I should say that Samantha Power was nominated to be head of USAID, the administrator nominee. Talk about the scope now, what the U.N. secretary-general has said about the scope of the problem, saying last week a donors’ conference netted $1.7 billion for humanitarian relief in Yemen, less than half of the — you reported this — the almost $4 billion needed to prevent widespread famine in Yemen.

NIMA ELBAGIR: I go back to the head of WFP, David Beasley’s comment: It is “hell on Earth.” There is no other way of putting it. When parents are faced with the choice of either feeding themselves, feeding their other children, or being able to afford to pay for the fuel to feed — to take that child to be fed in a therapeutic feeding center, then you have gone out beyond the edge of what should be acceptable to the civilized world.

It is a simple fix. Removing that fuel blockade immediately brings down the fuel prices. So, parents were telling us that even coming from nearby provinces to the hospital we show you in the piece, it was costing something like $80. Can you imagine $80 in a country like Yemen? So, fuel is more accessible. Fund the U.N. The World Health Organization was providing some of that fuel to hospitals. For months now, it hasn’t been able to provide any. So, actually commit to funding the U.N. But, fundamentally, also send the message that this is unacceptable, that you cannot blockade a nation of a basic necessity. That will allow some of this impact to be contained for a peaceful solution to be reached.

But the U.S., Tim Lenderking, the U.S. envoy, speaks about how they are pushing for peace as an absolute priority. What are you saving these — what are you bringing peace to, if people are dying, if their children are dying? Bringing the parties back to the negotiating table is absolutely integral to a sustained solution to this. Peace is integral to a sustained solution. But people are dying right now.

AMY GOODMAN: The Biden admin —

NIMA ELBAGIR: And the removal — OK.

AMY GOODMAN: The Biden administration says they’re reviewing President Trump designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization. The significance of this? And we just have 15 seconds.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Well, they have now suspended that, so they have now removed that. So, that has been very, very important for allowing food imports. But again, without fuel, where is that food arriving to?

AMY GOODMAN: Nima Elbagir, I want to thank you so much for being with us, award-winning senior international correspondent for CNN. Her recent investigative report on Yemen is headlined “Famine has arrived in pockets of Yemen. Saudi ships blocking fuel aren’t helping.”

Coming up, we’ll look at how Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry has exposed racism within the British royal family. Stay with us.

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