Too hungry to weep. The tragedy of Yemen’s starving children

A student at a school in Hajjah, Yemen, run by War Child Canada/USA, teaches Thomas Sadoski Arabic. War Child USA
A student at a school in Hajjah, Yemen, run by War Child Canada/USA, teaches Thomas Sadoski Arabic. War Child USA

“We are born dead” is graffitied, in English, on a wall across from the razor-wire sewn bulwark of the United Nations compound in northern Yemen. It is a distillation of the suffering of generational war; a plea from the abandoned and discarded.

I recently returned, through my involvement with the humanitarian organization War Child, from the northern reaches of Yemen’s Houthi regions. Access is virtually impossible for Americans (especially journalists) and took months of fraught negotiations. Not surprising, as American fingerprints are easily found on this crisis. US military support for Saudi Arabia, an integral player in the conflict, has been constant since its inception seven years ago.

During that stretch, a Saudi-led coalition has tried with little success to crush the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency in a conflict replete with potential war crimes. The effects of the war have been devastating.

Yemen, declared by the UN “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world”, is too flippantly sometimes described as a “proxy war”. Not so. Rather, what is occurring is an act of geopolitical sociopathy that trades the incomprehensible suffering of innocent souls for the martial annoyance of regional and global rivals. It does not have to be this way, but much needs to change and change immediately.

The Global Hunger Index currently ranks Yemen the worst in the world for level of hunger. Millions of Yemeni children, in some areas as many as 95% according to doctors in those areas that I spoke to, suffer from acute malnutrition.

The resulting stunted physical development had me convinced that I was in a kindergarten classroom when in fact I was meeting with eight and nine-year-olds. And those children were, as a colleague unnervingly put it, “the lucky ones”. Over 2 million Yemeni children are not in school, with far too many of them populating the vast child soldiery one must daily maneuver.

Everywhere is the ache of terminal starvation – the nightmarish effects of which include the inability to regulate body temperature, to produce tears when weeping and then a final decline into ghastly, emaciated, lethargic death. All of which I saw, and which Yemenis endure daily: children’s lives snuffed out by globally sanctioned neglect.

More than two-thirds of Yemen’s population (the equivalent of some 21.6 million people) are reliant on humanitarian assistance for survival, and that assistance can be scarce. The overwhelming majority live outside of city centers and the heart-rending decisions NGOs make every day of which lives to save in an environment of evaporating resources leaves that majority too often unattended. The imposition of unconscionable mahram restrictions on women, which prohibits them from traveling anywhere without a male family member, further confines and degrades.

It is obvious that more should be done. More can be done. But will it?

In 2022, the US committed $1 billion to humanitarian relief in Yemen. Maintaining that level given the worsening situation should be a mere formality.

Yet having spent the past week in Washington with members of Congress and the Senate regarding this crisis, it is apparent that political and fiscal calculations flourish when media coverage is fleeting, and outrage muted. As one Senator sterilely offered during our meeting, “That’s a lot of money”. A lot, indeed. Accordingly, to try to describe the near $110 billion the US has pledged to Ukraine in the last year sends one scrambling for a thesaurus.

Discrepancy so vast is a reasonable subject for candid discussion, especially given our military involvement, even tangentially, in the monumental suffering of Yemen’s women and children. Aid offers the only means to ensure this catastrophe does not become a comprehensive failure of humanity.

Hyperbole? Not hardly. There is no suitable term for allowing millions of children to suffer the prolonged horror of severe malnutrition until a state of irreversible death-by-famine takes them. To stand callously by and watch indignity lumped upon depravity heaped upon agony is utterly inhuman.

Nevertheless, the wheels are steadily in motion for that outcome, as global aid for Yemen is in staggering decline. Announced on Monday by Secretary Blinken, with unfortunate lack of context, the US government is slashing this year’s contribution to the UN appeal for Yemen by roughly 25% – additionally I’ve been told by multiple sources at USAID that their cuts for aid to Yemen in 2023 could go as high as near 40%, with further cuts planned for 2024.

This is not politically innocuous. A deepening crisis undermines our national interests. Terrorist groups remain active in Yemen, including Al Qaeda affiliates and ISIS. Thousands of American lives have been lost in pursuit of their global eradication and there are more in harm’s way on the ground in Yemen today.

Escalating civilian desperation in war-torn countries such as Yemen will advance these terror groups’ recruitment efforts, contrary to the United States’ peace and security goals. And with Iran present in the conflict there exists a regime that understands too well the propaganda value of Western indifference.

Yemen, as a political conflict, is complex and treacherous. The humanitarian tragedy is also difficult, but less so. One pathway is undeniably clear: removing funding, effort and influence is a death sentence for children. I witnessed first-hand the tremendous courage within Yemen’s civil society, especially among women who are the country’s conscience. They confidentially shared their stories, hoping that their message might resonate beyond borders.

What remains is this, delivered by a Yemeni woman and doctor who asked not to be named for her own safety: “We are fighting to survive from morning until night. We fight 24 hours a day, even in our dreams”. May we all awaken in time.

Thomas Sadoski is the Founding Ambassador for War Child USA, a charity supporting children and families in conflict areas across the globe. He is a stage, film and television actor whose many appearances include the HBO series The Newsroom. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

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