Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Mon, Apr 13th, 2015

Sliding towards a virtual genocide in Yemen

Terms like ‘genocide’ and ‘holocaust’ are best used with caution, despite the heinous acts of murder and mayhem now unleashed in the Middle East.

The 20th century saw its acts of genocidal intentions from Hitler’s holocaust of German Jews to Stalin’s mass extermination of Russian peasants to Pol Pot’s million-and-a-half “cleansing” in Cambodia to the Hutu-Tutsi massacres in Rwanda. The 21st century is not to be outdone, young as it still is. The rising death tolls in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, fueled in the latter two war zones by ISIS, have reached the tens of thousands. And now there is Yemen, where massive bombing by a Saudi-led coalition and hand-to-hand combat between well-armed opponents in Yemen have resulted in hundreds and hundreds of deaths alongside massive destruction of Yemen’s military structure and basic infrastructure.


Technically, genocide is a term reserved for the calculated and systematic destruction of a people, usually based on ethnic, so-called “racial” or religious affiliation. Such a killing field need not, and rarely is, total. Native Americans were reduced to a mere fraction of their population not long after Columbus landed in the Caribbean, most to disease but very much to the advantage of the invading Europeans. Many nations were wiped out completely and the survivors still suffer from marginalization and discrimination in the “land of the free”.  The numbers do not yet justify a Yemeni genocide, to be sure, but there is a worsening humanitarian crisis that could easily slide into genocide. The relentless “shock and awe” aerial campaign of over the first 17 days yielded some 1200 air strikes throughout Yemen, especially Sanaa and Aden. While Sanaa is currently free of street fighting, Aden has become a death trap for everyone who lives there.

Yemen is now entirely cut off from the outside world. Virtually no Yemeni can leave the country, except in the most dangerous way and for lots of money to handlers. No Arab country is willing to give a Yemeni citizen a visa. Food is in short supply as all incoming trade has been blocked. Water is also limited, gasoline supplies disappearing and electricity rare everywhere. A few medical supplies have trickled in, but not nearly enough to meet the demand and shortage of trained doctors and medical staff. Virtually, the entire expatriate work force has left or is trying to leave. Yemen was already the poorest, least developed and most fragile country on the Arabian Peninsula and the dire situation for its people worsens every day. Before the current fighting it is estimated that 60% of the population lived below the poverty line; that line is now moving rapidly in the wrong direction.


Must we really wait until the numbers are so alarming that the suffering of Yemen’s people takes precedence over the hypocritical praise lauded on a coalition that has thus far not been able to stop the advance of the combined forces of the northern Huthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Salih? Before the influx of ground forces, which is still an open question, the current campaign has two main results already. One is that Yemenis of virtually all persuasions are furious at the destruction of their country, no matter what the goal. The political rivalries have not abated, but the futility of the current air campaign is producing a strong backlash against Saudi involvement. The Saudis will no more be seen as liberators, no matter what the result, than the Americans have been in Afghanistan and Iraq. The second result is an expanded role of al-Qaida and those who now sympathize with their views. Were Hadi to return to Yemen, he would find that his new allies are more of a curse than a blessing.

No, Yemen has not yet reached a purist definition of genocide, but it is sliding closer every day. Forget about the numbers of dead for the moment and think about those people who have barely anything to eat, the children who are dying daily, the lack of medical care, the total disruption of the economy and consequent inevitable rise of a black market. Think about the misery that an entire population must endure as political operatives who appear to have little or no concern for the wanton destruction of Yemen play their video war game. Think about the tens of thousands of Yemenis who have been displaced, refugees in a country that already had tens of thousands of Somali, Ethiopian, Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Even if the fighting stopped tomorrow, it would take decades for the country to recover and the wounds to heal. Call it what you will, but I see it as a virtual genocide, a callous disregard for human life as though the world must be black-and-whited into an absurd binary of Sunni versus Shi’a.

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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