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Plagued By War and Famine, Yemen Is 'No Longer A Functioning State,' Journalist Warns

By Terry Gross | FA
Thursday, November 8, 2018

In 2015, Saudi Arabia initiated a bombing campaign against its southern neighbor Yemen in what was essentially a proxy war — the Saudis backed a government that had been forced out of the capital by the Houthis, a group allied with Iran.

The Obama administration backed the Saudis with targeting intelligence and logistical help. The assumption, says New York Times journalist Robert Worth, was that the war wouldn't be "too damaging" or last too long. That assumption turned out to be wrong on both counts.

Now, three years later, the war in Yemen continues — in part with bombs the Saudi-led coalition of countries bought from the U.S. Worth says the consequences have been dire.

In the capital Sanaa, he says, "The post office, the university, the university bookstore — everything is flattened."

Famine and water shortages are endemic throughout Yemen.

"There's internally displaced people along the roads," Worth says. "Hospitals — most of which are now non-functioning — are packed with people who are desperate — wounded people from the war, especially large numbers of women with babies who are suffering from malnutrition."

Worth believes that Americans should pay attention to what is going on in Yemen — especially, he says, since the U.S. bears some of the responsibility for the crisis.

"We gave a green light for it in 2015," he says, "and then we stood by and let it continue as it got worse and worse."

Worth's most recent reporting from Yemen appears in a New York Times Magazine article, "How the War in Yemen Became a Bloody Stalemate."


Interview Highlights

On the Houthis, the Yemeni group the Saudis are fighting

The Houthis are basically a militia that turned into a larger political movement. They happen to be Zaydi Muslims, which is a subset of Islam, but they are named for their founder, whose name was Hussein al-Houthi. So that's where they come from.

They're from the northwestern mountains of Yemen, and they started off as a small group which was fighting an insurgency against the government of Yemen, and they just grew more and more powerful over the years and attracted allies. And then after the uprisings in 2011 across the Arab world — the Arab Spring — the Houthis were able to take advantage of that because they had always been anti-government.

But unlike the street protesters, these guys had a lot of military power. They had been fighting the state. They were very effective. They had a lot of weapons, and so essentially they were able to seize that moment to gain a lot of allies and move into a position where they eventually just took over the country.

On how the war is affecting children, especially girls

One of the things that I found most upsetting is that the rate of child marriage has gone up dramatically since this war started. This was an old tradition in Yemen, that girls were married off by their families as young as 10, 11, 12, and I had reported on that in years past, and it seemed as if it was getting a little better. There was more awareness of it, and there were efforts to change the law.

But now these families can't afford to keep their daughters around, and so I was told that the rate of child marriage for girls is up to 65 percent. That means these girls, who were too young, most of them, to have children — their bodies are not ready — are going to get raped, essentially, by their husbands. They're going to have children, they're going to be taken out of school — if they were even lucky enough to be in school in the first place — and it's just going to perpetuate the cycle of physical and psychological damage.

On the famine in Yemen

[A Saudi-led coalition of countries has] an economic embargo on Yemen, and in theory, this is to prevent the Houthis from getting the weapons that they need, but in effect, it is worsening the impact of this war in all kinds of terrible ways. For instance, essential food and medicines, which are in theory supposed to be let in, often get held up. The shipments get blocked in Djibouti before they can get to Yemen, or sometimes they arrive and they've expired.

I spent time with the minister of health in the Yemeni capital. He told me that so many essential medicines for diabetes — even things that have nothing to do with the war — people can't get those medicines and they're dying by the hundreds or by the thousands, in some cases, depending on the illness.

Then also, above and beyond what is officially blocked by the embargo, for instance, there's wheat, [which is] essential, because bread is a staple of life in Yemen. I have an old friend who's a wheat importer, who told me that the Saudis were blocking wheat shipments in ways that weren't called for by the embargo, and he's tried to get help from Britain and other countries in stopping the Saudis from doing this.

On Yemen's water shortage

That's afflicted Yemen for a long time. It's a very arid country and there are no real rivers in that part of Yemen. People have depended for a long time on groundwater. They drill down and take it from underwater flows and those have been getting lower and lower and lower. People have to drill further and further and further to get it.

That's also affecting the humanitarian situation, because as you drill down, the likelihood of getting contaminated or salty water gets higher. And so, up in the highlands, people are feeding their babies this contaminated water, which makes it only more likely that they'll get sick and and get diarrhea or cholera, one of those diseases, and die.

On if he considers Yemen a "failed state"

Yeah, definitely. I mean, people quibble over the definition of "failed state," but definitely. ... It's no longer a functioning state, and I think that even [if] there's a peace deal, the hard work is going to come after that, because in effect, it's like Somalia now. It's been broken up into these little bits and pieces and you have warlords who are earning rents in one way or another, and they don't want to relinquish what they have. It's going to be really hard to persuade them to lay down their weapons and to be part of some larger entity, and if that doesn't happen, you're still going to get left with this dangerous, unstable checkerboard of fiefdoms.

On the U.S. stake in the outcome of the war in Yemen

There are a couple of ways to look at this: One is that chaos in Yemen is just dangerous for the United States. You have to remember that the al-Qaida-based branch of Yemen has been for a long time viewed as the most threatening one, because these are the guys who put bombs onto American airliners back in 2010. There [was] this plot that almost succeeded, with the ... so-called "underwear bomber," who tried to bomb an American airliner. They've since then mounted similar efforts. So there's clearly a will to strike the United States from that branch of al-Qaida, and the more chaotic Yemen is, the more free rein these guys have to continue these kinds of plots.

The second thing is that the American government, like the Saudis, is very concerned about Iranian influence in the region. And if this war continues in the direction it's been going, the Houthis may in fact become closer to Iran, may receive more Iranian weapons and training, may receive more direction from Hezbollah. And so in that sense, the Americans have the same concern as the Saudis.

Now the question is, is this war an effective way to stop that? And it seems to many people, [it] is not an effective way to stop that. The Americans would like to prevent Yemen from being a vehicle for Iran, and to prevent it from being a vehicle for al-Qaida, and that's why Yemen matters.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

View this story on npr.org

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