Of Cholera, Cluster Bombs and Summer Vacation
There is an old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, but there are some pictures that go beyond anything one can say. Before reading this commentary, look at the photographs that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia do not want you to see posted in the New York Times. For comparison, compare the summer vacation of Saudi King Salman, who is said to have spent $100 million for an entourage of 1,000 people going to his palatial resort in Morocco. Are there words to describe this or only tears that such inequity exists with impunity?
The unending war in Yemen, which has dragged on for over two and a half years, has left the country in utter ruins. Reports no longer even attempt to count the dead, assuming the number 10,000 is sufficient. Whatever the real number of deaths and wounded, there is no question that the bombs raging from the sky and ground fire between crazed opponents are now overtaken by the deadly epidemic of cholera. By mid-August this year the number of Yemeni citizens with cholera had reached half a million with at least 2000 deaths since April. According to a WHO report, “Yemen’s cholera epidemic, currently the largest in the world, has spread rapidly due to deteriorating hygiene and sanitation conditions and disruptions to the water supply across the country.” It is the devastation of Yemen’s infrastructure (and consequent exposure to dirty water and waste material) by this war that allowed cholera, a treatable disease, to erupt.
The numbers game, whether for those killed by bombs or overtaken by cholera, is numbing, a futile exercise in a land where access to health care is severely limited. The International Committee of the Red Cross notes that between March 2015 and March 2017 there were more than 160 attacks on medical facilities, with over 600 clinics forced to close, most in the Huthi/Salih controlled areas, where the bulk of Yemen’s population lives. “Between October 2015 and August 2016, Médecin sans Frontières lost 26 colleagues and patients in four separate bombings of health facilities the organization ran or supported.” With limited access to clean water, basic food and medicine, the suffering only gets worse every day.
The politics behind this war are submerged in a sea of propaganda. The Saudi-led coalition has made thousands of bombing runs, indiscriminately killing civilians while attempting to deny this or claim unfortunate collateral damage. No site is immune from attack, whether it is a health clinic, school, mosque, business, factory, private house or heritage monument. Using Western military hardware, greedily sold by the U.S., Britain and others, two of the richest countries on the Arabian Peninsula are bombing their poor but populous neighbor back to a medieval state. But the ability of the Saudis and Emiratis to buy favorable press keep pictures of the war, like those featured above, off your screens. The Huthis and Salih are as guilty of propaganda and damning the enemy as their opponents, but very few people outside Yemen are aware of their efforts or media channels.
There are rumors that the war may end soon. Certainly it is a tremendous financial burden and public relations disaster for the Saudis, a situation that even their petro-dollars cannot completely smother. But none of the sides, including al-Qaeda (now known as Ansar Shari’a), seem interested in a negotiated solution. The Saudis claim they are fighting to return the “legitimate” government of former President Hadi to power, but hardly anyone in Yemen wants the corrupt and inept Hadi to return. Hadi is well aware of this and thus has no interest in compromise, especially while he is hosted in a palace by his Saudi benefactors. Both the Saudis and Emiratis have trained Yemenis as mercenaries to fight their fellow Yemenis in the north. Meanwhile, the deaths multiply as the bombs keep dropping and a cholera epidemic that never should have happened in the 21st century rages. It is, to be blunt, a pathetic picture; no words can ever do justice to the ongoing suffering of the Yemeni people.