The war in Yemen is not one of those conflicts that we hear about on the news every week. However, this country is experiencing a serious humanitarian crisis. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that more than 23,000 people are in need of protection and assistance. But how did it all start? What brought Yemen into such a deep crisis? And, most importantly, why don’t we hear much about it? Our OCC interns Serin and Dionne had a conversation with Akram, one of our long-term ESC volunteers, who is from Yemen and helped us answer some of these questions.
From peaceful anti-government protests…
2011 was the beginning of everything, although we should go back much further than that to explain the complexities of this conflict. As Akram points out, during that year “there were some young people who went out onto the street to demand some rights for them, like better education and a lot of other rights […] But in the end, they received only bullets and were taken to jail”.
We are talking about the Arab Uprisings, which began in 2010 as a series of anti-government protests across the MENA region (the Middle East & North Africa). The first one started in Tunisia, and from there they spread to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped aside in 2012, accused of corruption and failed governance.
As the Global Conflict Tracker explains, all of these events reignited an unresolved, long-standing conflict with the Houthis, an armed group based in the North of the country, who were able to capitalise on popular discontent in Yemen and gained more and more support among the population. In 2014 and 2015, they became “bigger and bigger”, as Akram explains, to the extent that they were able to capture much of Yemen’s territory, including the capital, Sanaa.
At this point, a coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen and restored the internationally recognized government to power. However, this marked the beginning of a full-blown armed conflict as the coalition launched an aerial bombing campaign against Houthi forces. “A lot of places were bombed aiming at the Houthis”, says Akram. “But there were also families, weddings, funerals, schools, and hospitals…”.
Over the following years, the conflict spread to engulf the entire country and saw a proliferation in the parties taking part, including terrorist groups. As of today, the Houthis control the area around Sanaa, while the government forces, including the Southern Transitional Council, control most of the rest.
… to a humanitarian crisis.
Yemen has been the scene of one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world for seven years now. According to UNHCR, the conflict has affected more than two-thirds of Yemen’s population. Infrastructures, including hospitals, are practically destroyed, and economic decline and institutional collapse are making 50,000 people live in famine-like conditions. Moreover, internally displaced Yemenis are most at risk of food insecurity, which has been accompanied by the COVID-19 pandemic and outbreaks of preventable diseases.
When the international intervention restored the internationally recognized government to power, “people looked towards the new government as a hope… But it’s not”, Akram explains. All sides of the conflict have violated human rights and international humanitarian law, according to International Amnesty. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition that supports the government, the Houthis, or the Southern Transitional Council (STC) have carried out attacks that have unlawfully killed and injured civilians, as well as harassment, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, unfair trials, gender-based violence and discrimination, lethal violence to repress peaceful protests, and a large etcetera.
Seven years of silence
Despite all this situation, in Western Europe, we don’t hear much about Yemen. Akram gives many reasons for that. First, the country is geographically far from European countries, so there is obviously a media bias. However, Yemen is “a really important country for its geographical location… And when you have a place like that you will hide it from everyone”, Akram points out. Thus, many foreign interests converge in Yemen, as it is strategically located on the Bab al-Mandab strait, which Yemen and Djibouti, and Asia from Africa, connecting the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Finally, “all the embassies closed and their people left, except for the Iranian ambassador”, Akram explains. No international representation hugely contributes to international silence.
Ending the conflict in Yemen or even improving the situation for its people seems something really far to achieve. This is why Akram thinks that it is very important to “make it known because a lot of people don’t know anything about Yemen”. He adds, “If you would ask anyone who knows the country, ‘how is Yemen?,’ they will tell you a lot of stories about people being very welcoming and generous because they are simple and really close to humankind”. Search information about Yemen, tell your family and friends about the conflict, or share this article on social media. These simple actions can help Yemen become less silenced. As Akram believes, “starting to change the situation is in our hands”.