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Why The War In Yemen Receives Short Shrift In The News


It's been a head-spinning year for news, and there are many important stories that didn't receive as much attention as they might have over the past year. One of those stories is the war in Yemen. Western journalists have been almost completely shut out of covering that country, making it even harder to report. A brief refresher - Houthi rebels captured the capital in 2015, Saudi Arabia jumped in to support the government, claiming that the Houthis were supported by its regional rival, Iran, and all of this has created a disastrous situation for civilians. NPR's Ruth Sherlock recently gained rare access inside the country, and she joins us now. Ruth, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: What has this war done to Yemen? What's it like for the people who live there every day?

SHERLOCK: It's absolutely devastating. The U.N.'s children's agency, UNICEF, is now calling this the world's worst humanitarian crisis, and they're saying that this place is on the cusp of one of the largest famines in modern history. To explain that a bit more, that means 400,000 children are now suffering from acute malnutrition. And they're saying some of them are at risk of death. Some have already died. There's these awful images coming out of Yemen of skeletal children struggling for breath.

And the thing that makes this all the harder to understand is that this famine is man-made. That's because Yemen relies overwhelmingly on imports for its food - about 90 percent. But these have been hampered by blockades imposed during the war, and that's pushed the prices higher. So the strange thing is that when I was there, you could see food in the markets, but the problem is that for many families, they just can't afford to buy it.

SIMON: What about the war? How many people has that killed?

SHERLOCK: Well, that's hard to say exactly partly because these statistics are so hard to gather. Yemen is a very poor country and it's a place of sprawling deserts and impenetrable mountain ranges, so there aren't good information networks. The U.N., though, says that over 5,000 civilians have been killed in the last two and half years in the war, and that's really intensified. Those numbers have really increased since the Saudi Arabia-led coalition got involved. It's hard to understand from the outside how terrifying life is under these airstrikes. I met lots of civilians wounded by mines and bullets.

But the part of Yemen I was in was on the pro-Saudi side, so that meant that I didn't really see the effects of aerial bombardments. So for that, I reached out to Hana Al Shawafi (ph), a resident of the capital Sana'a on the other side of the front line. She sent me a diary on a day when the fighting had become really bad around her home.


HANA AL SHAWAFI: For three straight nights, me and my husband stayed in the small hallway of our apartment. Hearing the shelling or the missiles was unbearable, not only because of the dreadful feeling but because feeling the shake means I'm lucky enough I'm safe, but other civilians were not.

SHERLOCK: So we should say that, you know, the Houthi side of this war has also killed civilians. There's been indiscriminate attacks against civilians conducted by both sides of the war.

SIMON: And it's become a proxy war, right?

SHERLOCK: That's right. It's much bigger and more complicated than when it started. It used to be a civil war. But now Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are these bitter rivals in the Middle East, have intervened on opposite sides of the conflict. So it's become a sort of proxy war. The Saudis have pulled together a coalition to support the government's side whilst Iran is believed to be providing weapons to Houthi rebels that control the capital now. In recent months, Houthi rebels have started firing long-range missiles out of Yemen at the Saudi capital, Riyadh. And the Saudis have responded by blocking land, air and seaports, claiming they're trying to stop weapons coming to the Houthis from Iran. But that just made the humanitarian situation all the worse.

SIMON: And we should note, the United States has supported the Saudi coalition, hasn't it?

SHERLOCK: It has. So the U.S. has been selling Saudi many of the weapons that it's using in the conflict, and they've also been refueling the Saudi jet fighters that are actually dropping the bombs in Yemen. All this has become very controversial, especially since Saudi has been so widely attacked for being too indiscriminate in its bombing campaign and for imposing these blockades. There's been ongoing questioning from members of both parties in Congress about U.S.' role. President Trump has criticized the Saudis' blockade in Yemen, but he's given no indication that the U.S. is going to stop offering support for the war there.

SIMON: NPR's Ruth Sherlock, thanks so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.