Yemen civil war: The facts about the world's 'forgotten war'

Brutal conflict between Houthis and Saudi Arabia-backed coalition forces sparks humanitarian crisis, leaving as many as 10,000 dead and 8.4 million people facing devastating famine

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 15 October 2018 14:03 BST
Malnutrition centre in Mukalla, Yemen provides care for children suffering hunger and famine

As many as 13 million people in Yemen are facing starvation in what could be the “worst famine seen anywhere in the world for 100 years”, according to the UN.

The Middle Eastern nation has been embroiled in violent conflict for more than three years, its people suffering desperate privation and living under the constant threat of air strikes.

Here’s how the “forgotten war” started.

Who are the two sides?

The battle is being fought between Houthi rebels, members of the Zaidi Shia Muslim minority said to be backed by Iran, and Yemeni government forces supported by a 10-nation coalition of mostly Sunni Muslim majority nations led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The foreign powers involved have been accused of exploiting the crisis to expand their respective spheres of interest within the region.

The Houthis – disillusioned with the reign of President Abbrabbuh Mansur Hadi since he replaced Ali Abdullah Saleh following the Arab Spring uprising of 2011 – marched on the capital city of Sanaa from the north in September 2014 and forced him out office.

President Hadi fled to Riyadh via the Port of Aden and appealed for help.

Saudi Arabia duly retaliated against the rebels in March 2015, raining down brutal air strikes as part of operation “Decisive Storm” at the instigation of Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s defence minister prior to his accession to position of crown prince.

While the Saudi-led coalition began by targeting Houthi military strongholds, its bombing campaign quickly shifted to civilian targets, according to Professor Martha Mundy of the World Peace Foundation (WPF).

These included “water and transport infrastructure, food production and distribution, roads and transport, schools, cultural monuments, clinics and hospitals, and houses, fields and flocks,” the academic states in her recent report on the crisis, The Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial Bombardment and Food War.

The countryside has meanwhile been littered with landmines and other explosive devices as a result of the fighting, posing a further threat to human life on terra firma and making the ploughing of fields impossible.

The Saudis allege a million have been laid by the Houthis as a trap for them over the course of the last three years, with an estimated 500,000 left over by al-Qaeda in addition – a terror group with whom the state is still battling in the east of Yemen, further complicating the picture.

Air strikes hit Sanaa

“This is one of Yemen’s toughest problems now. It will take a lifetime to sort,” officer Ali Salah told The Independent.

Planned peace talks collapsed last month after the Houthi delegation failed to attend, prompting accusations from the Yemeni foreign minister Khaled al-Yamani they were “trying to sabotage the negotiations.”

But Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi insisted his side had been deliberately prevented from being able to attend by strategic road blocks.

Why are the US and UK supporting Saudi Arabia?

While the UK, the US and France have called on the two sides to negotiate a peace settlement, all three have been roundly criticised for failing to stand up to Saudi Arabia to protect their commercial interests.

The UK has sold more than £4.6bn worth of arms to the Saudis since the beginning of the Yemeni conflict in March 2015, according to the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, including aircraft, drones, grenades, missiles and tanks.

A poll published in September by YouGov for Save the Children and Avaaz meanwhile found that 63 per cent of the British public oppose the British government allowing sales to continue, with just 13 per cent supporting the trade.

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, previously CIA director, recently elected to continue US support for the Saudi air strikes rather than risk $2bn (£1.5bn) of weapon sales to the Gulf.

According to The Wall Street Journal, reporting on a leaked memo, Mr Pompeo “overruled concerns from most of the state department specialists involved in the debate who were worried about the rising civilian death toll in Yemen”.

While the UK and US do not participate in the Saudi-led bombings, the US provides aerial refuelling and logistical support while UK military personnel are stationed in command and control centres.

For its part, Spain cancelled its arms deal with Riyadh over concerns about the war, paying back the £7.8m it had already received in payment for laser-guided bombs.

How many people have died or been forced to flee as refugees?

At least 7,641 people have been killed in the conflict and millions displaced, although the total is thought to be closer to 10,000.

In August 2018, the bloodiest month of fighting so far this year, 981 civilians were killed, 300 of whom were children, according to the UN’s Human Rights Office.

Prior to that, 6,660 civilians were killed and 10,563 injured between March 2015 and August this year, according to conservative estimates from the UN.

Why is Yemen on the brink of a famine?

Strict Saudi blockades and travel restrictions have prevented food and aid reaching Yemen, causing the price of food within the country to skyrocket and leaving desperate families unable to afford basic supplies from markets.

The WPF report, accusing the Saudi coalition of using starvation as a weapon of war to create untenable conditions for the Houthis, states that no fewer than 220 fishing boats have been destroyed by bombs along the country’s Red Sea coast. This has meant the local fish catch is down by 50 per cent.

Air strikes on the Port of Hodeida in June likewise appear a deliberate attempt to disable a facility from which 70 per cent of imports enter Yemen. Coalition forces cut a crucial supply route between Sanaa and Hodeida in September.

The prevailing hardships as a result of bomb-damage have hit supplies of electricity and fuel, making basic arable farming difficult, while ranchers have been forced to sell their cattle to make ends meet.

As a result of all this, almost three-quarters of Yemen’s 27.58 million population are currently reliant on aid. Of that total of approximately 22.2 million, 8.4 million are starving, 1.8 million of those being children, according to Unicef.

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When The Independent visited a hospital in Mukalla in the country’s south in August, medical staff reported they were struggling to cope with the influx of malnourished people.

“The problem is not funding but space – we have only six beds and can treat a maximum of 35 people a month. We are forced to turn people away,” Dr Abha Abdalla said.

“It is bleak. We are losing the fight against famine,” UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock recently told the Security Council.

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