On March 14th, McGill Students for UNICEF in coordination with Amnesty International McGill jointly hosted a panel discussion about the ongoing civil war in Yemen. The panel discussion brought together a professor, a journalist, an activist and two Yemeni students to provide insight on the key issues that Yemeni citizens face today. They explained that the conflict has left in 21.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and has displaced 9.9 million children. The panel discussion offered an important avenue to raise awareness about a conflict that has, unfortunately, been marginalised in mainstream media.
For many members of the panel discussion, an important issue was the widespread suffering and destruction that the civil war had inflicted on everyday Yemeni citizens. Nawal Al-Maghafi, a Yemeni-British journalist who has covered the civil war extensively for news publications such as Channel 4 and the BBC, described the horrific scenes of starvation and malnutrition that she had witnessed during her time as a reporter in Yemen.
“I went to an area called Beita Fakin, and when I went, the situation was horrifying…it was the most difficult piece I ever worked on,” Al-Maghafi explained. “The first day we met a child called Salim, he was eight years old, but he literally looked like he was two because he was very frail and skinny. His mother showed me the pictures coming out of Yemen; I saw child after child who was severely malnourished, the kind of pictures you see in magazines.”
The origins of the Yemeni civil war can be traced back to November 2011, when political uprisings forced the departure of long-time authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh and led to an uneasy political transition where he was succeeded by his deputy Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. In the midst of political doubt, continuing corruption, economic chaos and food uncertainty under President Hadi, the Houthis – a Zaidi Shia minority – took control of the northern regions of Yemen and began an insurrection against the government forces. The insurgency later culminated with the Houthis capturing the capital, Sanaa, by early 2015 and forcing President Hadi and his armed forces to flee.
The situation led to a military intervention by Saudi Arabia, who by March 2015, began leading a coalition comprised of middle-eastern states against the Houthi insurrection to support the weak Hadi government. The coalition has since launched bombings, air strikes, blockades and ground attacks against anti-government forces that have resulted in widespread casualties and the displacement of many communities across Yemen.
Al-Maghafi highlighted the devastating effect that the economic blockade and bombings have had on everyday Yemeni citizens, explaining that since Yemen imports around 90% of all its food products, the blockage and subsequent strategic bombing of port infrastructure in the country had severely hampered the capacity to import necessary food sources and other commodities into the country.
“Both sides are using food and the economy as a weapon of war,” Al-Maghafi explained. “It was story after story of children dying and starving from simple, basic things that they desperately needed but didn’t have access to… [because] of the Saudi-led coalition bombing in Yemen, you have the port which has been completely disabled, and there is also blockage – Saudi ships – around Yemen that approve or disapprove of what can or cannot come into Yemen.”
Amir Shah, a McGill student from Yemen, echoed similar sentiments to Al-Maghafi, describing the harsh realities that his relatives and friends face living in Yemen.
“People are suffering from war; we don’t feel it here in Canada because we are in our safe space, we are not bombed every day,” Shah told the crowd of attendees. “In Yemen, you live in a rein of terror, you cannot go to sleep knowing that you may live to see the next sunlight because an airstrike can come, and you and your family might be killed, you might be shot down in the streets when you go out to get food – that is if you do find food in the markets – since there is not much food supplies in the market. There is no electricity; there is no running water.”
Another critical issue that was examined during the discussion were the problems faced by humanitarian aid organisations operating in Yemen over the past few years. Yemen’s civil war has been defined by violations of international law by all parties and sides to the conflict, with civilians and humanitarian activists often caught in the crossfire and targeted by combatants.
Rachel Kiddell Monroe, an activist and international board member of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) explained the difficulties that humanitarian organisations face in providing aid and support to civilians in Yemen, given the ongoing violence that has targeted hospitals and medical facilities in the region.
“Wars have to respect international humanitarian law, they have to ensure the protection of civilians, they have to ensure the protection of medical structures and the personnel, and they have to allow the wounded and sick to access healthcare…. this is of course not happening today,” Monroe said.
“There was another hospital called the Abds hospital…that also supported by MSF, and it was bombed but in that bombing, 19 people were killed, and 24 others were wounded. Among those 19 were MSF-supported staff. As a result of that, we decided we couldn’t stay, and we had to withdraw because it simply wasn’t safe for our staff to be working in that hospital,” Monroe explained. “That meant that we effectively abandoned the population. It was one of those horrible decisions which we have to make as a humanitarian organisation when your mission to be able to work and to protect people during a conflict is taken away from you…We want to reinforce the message that the humanitarian medical mission needs to be protected.”
For the time being, the Yemeni civil war risks entrenching long-lasting consequences and repercussions for its entire society. Omar Ba Mashmoos, a McGill student from Yemen, lamented the devastation and violence that has been a prominent feature throughout the civil war, emphasising that the conflict risks exacerbating fundamental divisions among Yemenis and irrevocable harm to the future of Yemeni society.
“[The] economy and infrastructure can be recovered in 10 years, 15 years, 20 years once everything becomes stable again, but when we talk about these social relationships and education, it is not a problem of 10 or 20 years, it is a generation problem,” Mashmoos explained. “In the long-run… you will still find people who will remember the civil war and will say, ‘this family member killed my friend’, or ‘they were fighting against my relative’. Similarly, in 50 years, you will still find people who are uneducated or illiterate because they were forced when they were children not to go to school.”