Your tax dollars help starve children

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ADEN, Yemen — He is an 8-year-old boy who is starving and has limbs like sticks, but Yaqoob Walid doesn’t cry or complain.

Yaqoob arrived unconscious at Al Sadaqa Hospital here, weighing just over 30 pounds.

He has suffered complications, and doctors say that it is unclear he will survive and that if he does he may suffer permanent brain damage.

Some 85,000 children may have already died here in Yemen, and 12 million more people may be on the brink of starvation, casualties in part of the three-year-old U.S.-backed Saudi war in Yemen. U.N. officials and aid experts warn that this could become the worst famine the world has seen in a generation.

“The risk of a major catastrophe is very high,” Mark Lowcock, the U.N. humanitarian chief, told me. “In the worst case, what we have in Yemen now has the potential to be worse than anything any professional in this field has seen during their working lives.”

Both the Obama and Trump administrations have supported the Saudi war in Yemen with a military partnership, arms sales, intelligence sharing and until recently air-to-air refueling. The United States is thus complicit in what some human rights experts believe are war crimes.

The bottom line: Our tax dollars are going to starve children.

I fell in love with Yemen’s beauty and friendliness on my first visit, in 2002, but this enchanting country is now in convulsions. When people hear an airplane today in much of Yemen, they flinch and wonder if they are about to be bombed, and I had interviews interrupted by automatic weapons fire overhead.

After witnessing the human toll and interviewing officials on both sides, including the president of the Houthi rebels who control much of Yemen, I find the U.S. and Saudi role in this conflict to be unconscionable. The Houthis are repressive and untrustworthy, but this is not a reason to bomb and starve Yemeni children.

What is most infuriating is that the hunger is caused not by drought or extreme weather, but by cynical and failed policies in Riyadh and Washington. The starvation does not seem to be an accidental byproduct of war, but rather a weapon in it. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, backed by the United States, are trying to inflict pain to gain leverage over and destabilize the Houthi rebels. The reason: The Houthis are allied with Iran.

The governments of Saudi Arabia and the United States don’t want you to see pictures like Yaqoob’s or reflect on the suffering in Yemen. The Saudis impose a partial blockade on Houthi areas, banning commercial flights and barring journalists from special U.N. planes there. I’ve been trying for more than two years to get through the Saudi blockade, and I finally was able to by tagging onto Lowcock’s U.N. delegation.

After a major famine, there is always soul-searching about how the world could have allowed this to happen. What’s needed this time is not soul-searching a few years from now, but action today to end the war and prevent a cataclysm.

The problem in Yemen is not so much a shortage of food as it is an economic collapse — GDP has fallen in half since the war started — that has left people unable to afford food.

Yaqoob was especially vulnerable. He is the second of eight children in a poor household with a father who has mental health problems and can’t work steadily. Moreover, the father, like many Yemenis, chews qat — a narcotic leaf that is very widely used in Yemen and offers an easy high. This consumes about $1 a day, reducing the budget available for food. The family sold some land to pay for Yaqoob’s care, so its situation is now even more precarious.

A few rooms down from Yaqoob was Fawaz Abdullah, 18 months old, his skin mottled and discolored with sores. Fawaz is so malnourished that he has never been able to walk or say more than “Ma” or “Ba.”

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Fawaz’s mother, Ruqaya Saleh, explained that life fell apart after her home in the port city of Hodeida was destroyed by a bomb (probably a U.S. one, as many are). Her family fled to Aden, and her husband is struggling to find occasional work as a day laborer.

“I used to be able to buy whatever I wanted, including meat and fish,” she told me. Since fleeing, she said, war-induced poverty has meant that she hasn’t been able to buy a single fish or egg — and that is why Fawaz suffers severe protein deficiency.

“They asked me to buy milk for Fawaz, but we can’t afford it now,” she said.

We think of war casualties as men with their legs blown off. But in Yemen the most common war casualties are children like Fawaz who suffer malnutrition.

Some will die. Even the survivors may suffer lifelong brain damage. A majority of Yemen children are now believed to be physically stunted from malnutrition (46 percent were stunted even before the war), and physical stunting is frequently accompanied by diminished brain development.

“These children are the future of Yemen,” Dr. Aida Hussein, a nutrition specialist, told me, looking at Fawaz. “He will be stunted. How will he do in school?”

The war and lack of health care facilities have also led to outbreaks of deadly diseases like diphtheria and cholera. Half of the country’s clinics and hospitals are closed.

In the capital, Sanaa, I met a child who was suffering both malnutrition and cholera. The boy was Saddam Hussein (he was named for the Iraqi leader), 8 years old, and the parents repeat the mantra I hear from everyone: Life is much worse now because of the war.

“We don’t know what we will eat tomorrow,” Saddam’s mother told me.

Yemen began to disintegrate in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and then the Houthis, a traditional clan in the north, swept down on Sanaa and seized much of the country. The Houthis follow Zaydi Islam, which is related to the Shiite branch dominant in Iran, and the Saudis and some Americans see them as Iranian stooges.

In some ways, the Houthis have been successful. They have imposed order and crushed al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in the parts of Yemen they control, and in Sanaa I felt secure and didn’t fear kidnapping.

However, the Houthis operate a police state and are hostile to uncovered women, gays and anyone bold enough to criticize them. They recruit child soldiers from the age of about 12 (the Saudi- and U.S.-backed forces wait until boys are about 15), interfere with food aid, and have engaged in torture and attacks on civilians.

Still, the civilian loss of life has overwhelmingly been caused not by the Houthis but by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and America, through both bombings and starvation. It’s ridiculous for the Trump administration to be exploring naming the Houthis a terrorist organization. And while the Houthis are allies of Iran, I think the Saudis exaggerate when they suggest that the Houthis are Iranian pawns.

The foreign minister on the Houthi side is Hisham Sharaf Abdalla, a congenial U.S.-educated official.

“I love the U.S.,” Sharaf told me. “We look to the U.S. as the only force that can stop this war.”

Peace talks are now beginning in Sweden — few people expect them to solve the crisis soon — and he insisted that his side was eager to reach a peace deal and improve relations with America.

After our conversation, he brought me over to his desk and showed me his assault rifle and two handguns. “When I was in the U.S., I was a member of the NRA,” he told me. “I would like to have an NRA chapter in Yemen.”

Sharaf talks a good game but is not himself a Houthi, just an ally, so I wondered if he was a figurehead trotted out to impress foreigners. Later I interviewed a man whose power is unquestioned: Muhammad Ali al-Houthi, president of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee. As his name signifies, he is a member of the Houthi clan.

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An aide picked me up and ferried me to him, for Houthi changes locations daily to avoid being bombed by the Saudis.

Houthi, a large, confident man with a traditional dagger at his belly, was friendly to me but also suspicious of the United States and full of conspiracy theories. He suggested that Washington was secretly arming al-Qaida and that the United States was calling the shots for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, at the behest of Israel.

Still, he said that he wanted peace and that although the Houthis have fired missiles at Saudi Arabia, his side would pose no threat to Saudi Arabia if the Saudis would only end their assault on Yemen.

“There’s no need for enmity with the United States,” he told me in Arabic, and that seemed a message he wanted me to convey to Washington and the American people.

I asked Houthi about the sarkha, the group’s slogan: “God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curses on the Jews! Victory to Islam!” That didn’t seem so friendly, I said.

“It’s nothing against the American people,” he replied. “It’s directed toward the system.”

When I asked about Saudi and American suggestions that the Houthis are Iranian pawns, he laughed.

“That’s just propaganda,” he said. “I ask you: Have you ever seen one Iranian in Yemen? Do we speak Farsi?” This was all a trick, he said, analogous to the allegations of weapons of mass destruction used to justify war with Iraq.

While the Houthis are called “rebels,” they clearly rule their territory. In contrast, the Saudi- and U.S.-backed “internationally recognized government” of Yemen is a shell that controls almost no territory — hence it is based in Riyadh. The “president” of this exile government, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is said to be gravely ill, and when he is gone it will be even more difficult to sustain the fiction that this is a real government.

More broadly, I don’t see any hint of a Saudi or U.S. strategy. There’s little sign that bombing and starvation will actually dislodge the Houthis, while the Saudi military action and resulting chaos has benefited the Yemeni branches of al-Qaida and the Islamic State. In that sense, America’s conduct in Yemen has hurt our own national security.

In one sign of the ineffectiveness of the Western-backed government, the hunger is now as severe in its areas as in the rebel-held north. I saw worse starvation in Aden, the lovely seaside city in the south that is nominally run by the internationally recognized government, than in Houthi-controlled Sanaa.

And while I felt reasonably secure in Houthi-controlled areas, I was perpetually nervous in Aden. Abductions and murders occur regularly there, and my guesthouse offered not a mint on the pillow, but a bulletproof vest; at night, sleep was interrupted by nearby fighting among unknown gunmen.

What limited order exists in Aden is provided by soldiers from the United Arab Emirates and allied militias, and I worry that the UAE is getting fed up with the war and may pull them out without alternative arrangements for security. If that happens, Aden may soon plunge into Somalia-like chaos.

Mohamed Zemam, governor of the central bank, believes that there are ways to shore up the economy and prevent starvation. But he cautions that the risk of another Somalia is real, and he estimates that there may be 2 million Yemenis in one fighting force or another.

“What they have is the way of the gun,” he said. “If we don’t solve that, we will have problems for 100 years.”

Another danger is that the Saudi coalition will press ahead so that fighting closes the port of Hodeida, through which most food and fuel come.

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I stopped in Saudi Arabia to speak to senior officials there about Yemen, and we had some tough exchanges. I showed them photos on my phone of starving children, and they said that this was unfortunate and undesired. “We are not devils,” one said indignantly. They insisted that they would welcome peace — but that they must confront the Houthis.

“The most important thing for us is national security,” the Saudi ambassador to Yemen, Mohammed al-Jaber, told me. Dr. Abdullah Al Rabeeah, an adviser to the royal court and director of a fund that provides aid to Yemen, told me that Saudis don’t want to see hunger in Yemen but added: “We will continue to do what it takes to fight terrorism. It’s not an easy decision.”

Saudi and UAE officials note that they provide an enormous amount of humanitarian aid to Yemen. This is true, and it mitigates the suffering there. But it’s difficult to give the Saudis much credit for relieving the suffering of a country that they are bombing and starving.

To avert a catastrophe in Yemen, the world needs to provide more humanitarian aid. But above all, the war has to end.

“You’re not going to solve this long-term until the war is ended,” said David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program. “It’s a man-made problem, and it needs a man-made solution.”

That solution will entail strong U.S. backing for a difficult U.N.-backed peace process involving Yemeni factions and outsiders, aiming for a measure of power sharing. This diplomatic process requires engaging the Houthis, not just bombing them. It also means a cease-fire and pressure on all sides to ensure humanitarian access and the passage of food and fuel. The best leverage America has to make the Saudis part of the solution is to suspend arms sales to Riyadh so long as the Saudis continue the war.

In conference rooms in Riyadh and Washington, officials simply don’t fathom the human toll of their policies.

In a makeshift camp for displaced people in Aden, I met a couple who lost two daughters — Bayan, 11, and Bonyan, 8 — in a bombing in a crowded market.

“I heard the bomb and I went running after them,” the dad, Ahmed Abdullah, told me with an ache in his voice. “They were dead. One had her skull burst open, and the other had no arms or legs left.”

He told me that the family then fled, and he married off a 15-year-old daughter so that someone else would be responsible for feeding her. This is common: The share of girls married by age 18 has increased from 50 percent before the war to two-thirds today, according to UNICEF.

Another son died of fever when the family could not afford to take the boy to a hospital. There are several other children, and none of them are going to school any more; a 10-year-old daughter, Baraa, who is next in line to be married, couldn’t tell me what seven plus eight equals.

A bit hesitantly, I told Ahmed that I thought that my country, America, had probably provided the bomb that had killed his daughters. He was not angry, just resigned.

“I am not an educated person,” he told me earnestly. “I am a simple parent.” And then he offered more wisdom than I heard from the sophisticated policy architects in America and Saudi Arabia: “My message is that I want the war to stop.”

Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

For readers wondering how they can help, aid groups doing excellent work in Yemen include the International Rescue Committee, CARE and Save the Children.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Nicholas Kristof © 2018 The New York Times

[source: https://www.pulselive.co.ke/the-new-york-times/opinion/your-tax-dollars-help-starve-children-id9179743.html]

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