Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Sun, Nov 4th, 2018

What One Death Means

The photograph of an emaciated seven-year-old Yemeni girl named Amal Hussein was featured in a major New York Times article, published October 26, on the devastation of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. On November 1, this young girl died “at a ragged refugee camp four miles from the hospital.” This is only one of the thousands of Yemeni children who have died from the bombing campaign of the Saudi-led coalition. Another individual death that resonated across social media in 2015 was a young Syrian boy, named Alan Kurdi, who washed ashore after an unsuccessful attempt to flee across the water to Europe.  A year later his father lamented that the photo of his dead son “had changed nothing.” Will the death of Amal suffer the same fate as that of Alan, a news story that fades into an archive rather than launches a crusade?

In October another single death made the headlines everywhere in the world. The Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he arrived to get official divorce papers so he could marry a Turkish woman. The thorough investigation by the Turkish authorities has revealed that this was premeditated and most analysts believe that such an act must have been ordered from the top. There is no picture to show of Jamal’s body, since it was carved up and is now reported to have been dissolved. This story has yet to disappear a month later, despite the frantic efforts of the Saudis to buy silence and the reluctance of Western nations to forego arms sales to such a brutal regime.

So what does one death mean? What makes a particular death more chilling, more newsworthy, than the death of many? When a U.S.-made bomb was dropped by the Saudis on a school bus in northern Yemen and killed 40 children in August, this was all over the front pages. Such coverage brought attention to the Yemen war mainly because the bomb was made in America. It was just one small part of billions of dollars already purchased by the Saudis with the disputed assertion by President Trump that they will soon buy $110 billion more more. But only a few countries have been willing to stop selling arms to the Saudis.

The deaths of Amal and the 40 school children are but a small number of the total number of Yemeni children and adults killed directly or indirectly by the Saudi bombing campaign that started in March, 2015. In August, 2016 the United Nations suggested that 10,000 Yemenis had been killed in the overall fighting on all sides. The independent Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project puts the figure at almost 57,000 fatalities today, but as late as last October the Washington Post continued to quote the magical 10,000 number as the latest figure. Even the Wikipedia entry on the Yemen War places the number of deaths as between 50,000-80,000. Numbers do matter when they are suppressed, even if they do not reflect the agony of any one death.

An individual death can have multiple meanings. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 led to a world war. The murders of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy fixed their place in American history forever. The murder of Martin Luther King in 1968 galvanized the nascent civil rights movement. But these are responses to the deaths of famous men and of martyrs.  How does the death of a poor, sick child measure up to those of the rich and famous?

The untimely death of a Yemeni girl in itself will not end a brutal war. There will be many more deaths to come, especially since the Saudi air raids continue to kill children in Hodeidah and have been increased since the U.S. Secretary of State called for an end of the war, with mounting pressure from the Secretary-General of the United Nations to immediately halt the fighting. In the short run, this one death may be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back and at long last drags the resistant parties to accept a resolution of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In the long run, Amal’s death will haunt her family for their entire life, one among the many whose deaths are mourned but can never be forgotten by those who suffer such atrocities. The question is: what does this one death mean to you?

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.