09 Dec

Your Tax Dollars Help Starve Children

Opinion Your Tax Dollars Help Starve Children

By Nicholas Kristof

The McGlynn, A Few Thoughts

This article should be required reading for every single American preoccupied with partisan politics or prepping for Christmas.

The phrase “royal family”? BULLSHIT! If they are “royal”, then I am a saint. If anybody wants to take over the whole peninsula, it is the Saudi royal family. We need to be on the side of Yemen here, not with the Saudis.

There is no mention of the physical pain that accompanies starvation. These children are being tortured both physically and mentally. The pain itself evolves into a constant hollowing, twisting, wrenching emptiness within one’s core. There is no escape. The slow draining of energy, viability and hope are mentally torturous, especially for the mind of a child who has no understanding of true, unmitigated cruelty. Torturing thousands upon thousands of innocent children is a crime against humanity straight out of our human hell on earth. Shame on us.

A major problem is that our Country, as a whole including our Government, do not give a damn.  We have been indoctrinated for decades by Republicans to feel outraged when “taxpayers” are asked to fund school lunches for children who might otherwise go hungry right here in our own communities. I have read commenters moralize that parents should pack a lunch for their own children and pontificate more universally that if parents can’t take of children they shouldn’t have them.

Further we won’t commit to the principle that health care is a right for our own citizens. So I don’t expect us collectively to show any more compassion for children who are need in of medical care and so painfully and desperately starving when those children are thousands of miles away and, let’s just say it, not white.

The ideology of whiteness and selfishness is what the Trump The Dump administration thrives on. It may even be true that a majority of our citizens resist this creeping corruption of the spirit and still have a different set of beliefs that make us want to help. But we are ruled by an abhorrent minority and can no longer make our will known—or rather, when it’s known, this minority will simply disregard what’s right in favor of what’s profitable for them. We can only hope that this powerful majority will move a few rich and powerful individuals to advocate for this cause.

But I would not bet on it. Pathetic.

The McGlynn

Yaqoob Walid, 8, who is suffering from malnutrition that is so prolonged it may prove fatal, has been in the hospital for more than a month.Giles Clarke for The New York Times

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. He gazes stolidly ahead, tuning out everything, for in late stages of starvation the human body focuses every calorie simply on keeping the organs functioning.

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 American-backed Saudi war in Yemen. United Nations 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 United Nations 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.

A block in the area known as Kraytar, in the Yemeni city of Aden, was destroyed by coalition airstrikes in mid-2015. CreditGiles Clarke for The New York Times

A block in the area known as Kraytar, in the Yemeni city of Aden, was destroyed by coalition airstrikes in mid-2015. CreditGiles Clarke for The New York Times

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 American 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 United Nations 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 United Nations delegation.

Yaqoob Walid.CreditGiles Clarke for The New York Times

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.”

Fawaz’s mother, Ruqaya Saleh, explained that life fell apart after her home in the port city of Hudaydah was destroyed by a bomb (probably an American 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.

A Yemeni child suffering from malnutrition being weighed at a treatment center in a hospital in Sana.CreditMohammed Huwais/AFP-Services, for The New York Times

“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, Sana, I met a child who was suffering both malnutrition and cholera. The boy was Saddam Hussein (he was named for the Iraqi leader), eight 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 Sana 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 Qaeda and the Islamic State in the parts of Yemen they control, and in Sana 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 American-backed forces wait until boys are about 15), interfere with food aid, and have engaged in torture and attacks on civilians.

Fawaz Abdullah, 18 months old and suffering from severe malnutrition, carried by his mother.CreditGiles Clarke for The New York Times

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 American-educated official.

“I love the U.S.,” Mr. 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 N.R.A.,” he told me. “I would like to have an N.R.A. chapter in Yemen.”

Mr. 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, the president of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee. As his name signifies, he is a member of the Houthi clan.

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

President 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 Qaeda 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 President 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 American-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, Abdu Rabbu 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 American 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 Qaeda 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 Sana.

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 U.A.E. 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, the 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 two 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 Hudaydah, through which most food and fuel come.

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-Jabir, 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 U.A.E. 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, the 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 American backing for a difficult United Nations-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.

A Yemeni child suffering from malnutrition being treated at a hospital in the capital, Sana, in late November.CreditMohammed Huwais/AFP-Services, for The New York Times

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.”


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