Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Fri, Sep 2nd, 2016

On the Slaying of Thousands

Throughout the protracted air campaign and civil war in Yemen, estimates of the dead have been kept low. It should be obvious that these estimates are kept low by the media pressure exerted by Saudi Arabia rather than reflecting the reality of those killed. On August 30 the United Nations revised its estimate upward from around 6,500 to at least 10,000. This is quite a jump. It does not reflect a sudden surge in the past few weeks of a war that has gone on for almost 18 months.

“David’s Return” by James Tissot.

“David’s Return” by James Tissot.

I am reminded of the biblical reference to young David, when he was compared to Israel’s King Saul after returning from battle with the Philistines: “And the women answered one another as they played, and said, Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (I Samuel 18:7). This infuriated Saul, who suspected that David would seek the kingship. I am mindful of the fact that the Arabic equivalent of the Hebrew David is not Salman or Mohammad Bin Salman, despite reports that Saudi Arabia and modern Israel are becoming allies in a sense. But the fact remains that the death toll in Yemen, both from the incessant bombing and the internecine fighting of the factions, is much higher than any “official estimate.” The “official” estimates come from hospital records, so they do not include individuals buried in houses or blown to bits or buried without being taken to hospital. It is doubtful that even all the deaths in hospitals are properly recorded in such a war zone. Whether we are thinking of Salman, Bin Salman, Abdul Malik al-Huthi, or any of the multiple faction leaders, the blood is on all their hands.

Ten thousand is a thresh hold number, it allows one to say “thousands have been killed,” and not “just a few thousand.” As a moral issue, how many citizens have to die before enough pressure can be put on the warring factions to stop a war that is clearly unwinnable? The spate of peace talks reflect the intransigence of the participants, some more than others, rather than a serious attempt to call a halt. It is obvious that the Saudis do not want to lose face, but at this point there really is no face to save. This was an ill-conceived campaign from the start with no Plan B and no exit strategy and it relied on an individual, former interim President Hadi, that no one respected. Now that the toll has reached 10,000 will we reach 20,000 or even 30,000 before the world pays enough attention to stop the madness? The fact that Western states are resupplying the Saudi coalition with billions of dollars’ worth of military hardware suggests that the death toll will not abate soon.

The Huthis have literally nowhere to go. By bombing their home base, or at least assumed home base, of Sa’da into rubble, just where did the Saudis leave them to retreat to if they leave Sanaa? At this point the alliance of the Huthis and the army forces loyal to former President Salih continue to survive and even manage to attack within Saudi Arabia. The Saudis claim they are trying to keep Iranian weapons out of Yemen, but Yemeni forces only have to cross over the border, attack a military outpost and get their supply from the Saudis themselves. ISIS is against everyone else, recently attacking a pro-government location in Aden and exacting many casualties. Ansar Shariah, the local transformation of Al-Qaeda, is still active, despite claims that Mukalla and other areas in the south have been liberated. The ruse that the pro-Hadi forces (whoever they are) control most of the country is ludicrous. Yemen is for the most part a no-man’s land with no viable government, including the skeleton crew in exile.

Beyond this ghastly statistic, no matter what the number, the humanitarian crisis overall adds to the misery. Some 200,000 Yemenis have fled the country, over 3 million are displaced within Yemen, over half the population is in need of food and does not have access to adequate health care, if any at all, and over 19 million lack access to clean water. I recognize that there are other humanitarian crises in the region, especially Syria, but Yemen continues to be a crisis that is poorly covered in the media. If an MSF clinic is bombed, it makes the news, but the regular bombing raids usually get a pass, no matter how many casualties and what the level of destruction.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.

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