“There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children”. Unfortunately there are 12 million who need urgent humanitarian assistance, some of whom were born into areas experiencing armed conflicts while others spent their earliest moments in chaos, often in deeply unsafe, and highly stressful environments. With stolen childhood, a lost generation and an uncertain future, the children of Yemen are born into an intractable political, military, and humanitarian crises. As per a UNICEF worker, “Some of the young children we see shake with fear, uncontrollably, for hours on end. They don’t sleep. You can hear them whimpering, it’s not a usual cry but a cold, weak whimper. Others are so malnourished and traumatized they detach emotionally from the world and people around them, causing them to become vacant and making it impossible for them to interact with their families.”
Yemen is a small country on the Arabian Peninsula that has become the site of grievous civilian suffering amid an intractable civil war. Many analysts say the fighting, now seven years old, has turned into a proxy war: Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who overthrew the Yemeni government, are pitted against a multinational coalition led by Saudi Arabia. The conflict has displaced more than one million people and given rise to cholera outbreaks, medicine shortages, and threats of famine. The United Nations calls the humanitarian crisis in Yemen “the worst in the world.” The chaos has also allowed the al-Qaeda affiliate in the region to expand its foothold. The country has never been much at peace and has long struggled with religious and cultural differences between its north and south and the legacy of European colonialism. Ever since its formation in 1990, the Southern Movement has continued to press for greater autonomy within Yemen. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an Islamist militant group, and the related Ansar al-Sharia insurgent group have captured territory in the south and east. The United States has provided Yemen more than $850 million in military aid ever since the AQAP, conducted a suicide attack on a U.S. Navy warship, the USS Cole, in the Yemeni port of Aden.
The current crisis is an amalgamation of subsidy backlash, Houthi takeover, military division and Saudi takeover. The Houthi movement, which had attracted support beyond its base with its criticisms of the UN transition, organized mass protests demanding lower fuel prices and a new government. Hadi’s supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated party, al-Islah, held counterrallies whereas military units lotal to Saleh aligned themselves with the Houthis. In 2015, with Hadi in exile, Riyadh launched a military campaign—primarily fought from the air—to roll back the Houthis and restore the Hadi administration to Sanaa. Hadi’s government has also accused Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese ally, of aiding the Houthis. Saudi Arabia’s perception that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy rather than an indigenous movement has driven Riyadh’s military intervention. But many regional specialists say that Tehran’s influence is likely limited, especially since Iranians and Houthis adhere to different schools of Shiite Islam.
Iran and the Houthis share geopolitical interests. Tehran seeks to challenge Saudi and U.S. dominance in the region, and the Houthis oppose Hadi’s U.S.- and Saudi- backed government. Although the U.S. Congress has been divided on the matter, the United States has backed the Saudi-led coalition, as have France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. U.S. interests include security of Saudi borders; free passage in the Bab el-Mandeb strait, the choke point between the Arabian and Red Seas and a vital artery for the global transport of oil; and a government in Sanaa that will cooperate with U.S. counterterrorism programs. Yet, the United States remains Saudi Arabia’s largest arms supplier, and President Donald J. Trump thrice vetoed bills that would have halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia. A week after his inauguration, President Joe Biden froze arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE while his administration reviewed such transactions. AQAP vies for influence with the self-proclaimed Islamic State, especially in the central al-Bayda Governorate. The United Nations estimates that the Islamic State’s ranks in Yemen are in the hundreds and AQAP’s in the thousands.
With a poverty rate of more than 50 percent, Yemen was the Arab world’s poorest country even prior to the conflict. A recent UN report found that over half of Yemen’s thirty million people will experience crisis-level food insecurity by mid-2021. Disease has run rampant; suspected cholera cases reached some seven hundred thousand in 2019. The country has also been hit by the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, though it is difficult to assess the virus’s impact, since there is no comprehensive caseload data. Moreover, as the pandemic has hit the world’s economies and disrupted supply chains, many countries have cut back on critical aid to Yemen. The United Nations received less than half the donations requested for Yemen in 2020, raising fears of famine in a country where 80 percent of the population relies on humanitarian assistance.
There are bleak prospects for a solution to this crisis. Observers worry that friction among regional actors, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, could prolong the war. Many analysts view Yemen’s conflict as an Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war rather than a civil war that overlooks local dynamics that ultimately caused the fighting, and that Yemen’s long-term stability hinges on resolving those domestic tensions. The Trump administration’s January 2021 decision to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, which criminalized interactions with the group, could deter governments—including Joe Biden’s administration—from pursuing peace talks with it. The move could also impede deliveries of much-needed humanitarian aid.
The worst hit are the civilians, especially the women and the children, who without no fault of their own have been suffering endlessly and bear witness to the downtrodden state of affairs that humanity has come to. With no proper funding, more than 2 million women and girls might lose access to reproductive health and protection services. Yemen is on the brink of a nation-wide famine. While exact numbers are impossible to get, there has also been a reported rise in child marriages, with families marrying off young teenage girls so that they can better feed the remaining children – and in the hopes that their daughter will be better fed as well.
Many centuries ago Dante Aligheri said that the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis. The war might finally come to an end someday, the regional differences might be cleared, the skirmishes that often result in bomb blasts and missile attacks might stop, but how will people live on? Today’s children are tomorrow’s future, and a lost generation that has seen nothing but destruction and brutality, rape and murder, hunger and disease might end up becoming like those who made them suffer. In times like these, neutrality of humans should cease to exist and a helping hand should be lent no matter how small.