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Humanitarian Situation in Yemen’s ‘Forgotten War’ Worsens

Aid worker: Even if Riyadh agreement succeeds and peace eventually comes, dire plight of country’s civilians will continue

Just a few months ago, the media was filled with alarm bells that the humanitarian disaster in war-torn Yemen was getting worse. The warnings have mostly disappeared, which might lead some to think the situation has improved.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

“There is nothing that shows any improvement,” Hisham Al-Omeisy, an independent Yemeni political analyst, told The Media Line. “The only thing that is visible in the media is that there is less coverage.”

Perhaps this is due to conflict fatigue or because the protests in places like Lebanon and Iraq have become the topic du jour. Whatever the reason, the Yemen conflict, now being called the “forgotten war,” is in danger of becoming even more forgotten when it comes to the human cost.

Olivia Headon, Yemen spokeswoman for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), says that conditions for 3.6 million people displaced by the conflict have worsened in the past half year because of the weather.

“We have had really heavy rain, which has caused people who are already displaced by conflict to be displaced by floods,” Headon said. “This is still the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.”

According to UNICEF, as of October 2019, 80 percent of the people of Yemen require some form of foreign assistance. Close to 20% of the population relies on aid to get a bare minimum of healthcare services.

Statistics show that only about half of the country’s medical centers are currently in operation – and they often lack the resources to provide the necessary treatment. This in part led to the 2017 cholera epidemic, the worst ever recorded.

In 2019, almost 16 million Yemenis are suffering from hunger.

Yemen’s conflict started in 2014 when Shi’ite Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, seized Saada Province in the North, followed by the capital city of Sanaa. Saudi Arabia, in partnership with other Sunni countries, sided with the Yemen government, launching strategic airstrikes against the Houthis with backing by the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

Hopes for a political solution have now been bolstered by an accord signed in Riyadh on November 5.

Under the agreement, Yemen’s government and the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist group that had put aside its differences to fight with government troops against the Houthis, ended a dispute of their own over the southern port city of Aden, which had become the interim capital.

“The international community is backing this agreement…. There is a lot of political clout behind it, so it’s more binding,” Al-Omeisy said. “Everyone realizes that you cannot win Yemen back militarily; you need a political solution.”

There is also significant internal support for the accord.

“Part of the reason we had bouts of fighting and clashes erupting across Yemen was that parties were not included in peace deals,” he explained. “The Riyadh agreement is more inclusive.”

Part of Al-Omeisy’s optimism stems from the fact that Yemen’s back had come up against a wall.

“We reached a tipping point when the government was pushed out of the country, but now the government has returned, so there’s [hope],” he said. “As a Yemeni, [I am] really clinging to that hope. There are not any other options.”

But until a lasting political solution takes hold, the people of Yemen could continue to feel the effects of the war. Particularly hard hit are the children.

According to UNICEF, approximately 17.8 million people in the country lack clean drinking water or proper sanitation. About half of them are children.

Between January 1 and September 30 of this year, the UN was able to confirm the deaths of 208 children, although it notes that this figure is likely lower than the reality.

“Every child is facing several severe consequences; you can’t point at just one,” Bismarck Swangin, chief of communications for UNICEF/Yemen, told The Media Line. “The basic necessities of life have almost run out.”

Swangin explained that some 12.3 million children there are now dependent on foreign aid.

“Almost the entire population of Yemen under 18 now requires some sort of humanitarian assistance to be able to survive,” he said. “Each day of the conflict makes the humanitarian situation worse.”

The IOM’s Headon contends that the end of the war will not end the toll on civilians, at least not immediately.

“Even if the conflict stops, we will still have the humanitarian crisis. Just because fighting stops doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be able to go home straight away or have access to employment like they did before,” she said. “They will still need support from the international community.”