As Yemenis Starve, Humanitarian Relief Group Pleads For International Help

Mar 1, 2021
Originally published on March 2, 2021 12:23 pm

Hunger has been weaponized in the war in Yemen, says a former U.N. official who is currently in the country.

"We are seeing a relentless countdown to a possible famine that the world hasn't seen since Ethiopia in the 1980s," says Jan Egeland, who is now secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The need is enormous: Nearly 50,000 Yemenis are already starving to death and 16 million will go hungry this year, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. held a conference Monday to attempt to drum up $3.85 billion in new humanitarian aid. Rich countries cut back on donations last year as the pandemic took hold.

By Monday afternoon, pledges appeared to again fall drastically short of the request. Egeland said he was "deeply disappointed," while the head of another leading humanitarian aid group, the International Rescue Committee, called the $2 billion shortfall a "failure of humanity."

Egeland, who is spending a week in Yemen, told All Things Considered on Monday that he has traveled from the capital of Sanaa to the northwestern provinces of Amran and Hajjah, where he has seen "children now having starved for so long that they were dying from all of the associated diseases."

He visited a community of families who fled the fighting in the country's south and now live near a garbage dump north of the capital. They are forced to live off the scraps of food people throw away, he says.

"This is subhuman conditions that I haven't seen anywhere to that extent," Egeland tells NPR.

At a clinic that helps starved children, Egeland says he met a mother and her 9-year-old daughter. The 9-year-old looked only 3 or 4 and was so malnourished she couldn't walk. The mother had 14 children but five have died from diseases related to malnutrition. Her husband's work as a day laborer dried up when COVID-19 hit.

"I want you to tell our story," Egeland says the woman told him.

In addition to more funding for aid, Egeland says there needs to be a "famine prevention" cease-fire. The war in Yemen started in 2014, when the Iran-backed Houthi militant group overtook Yemen's internationally recognized government in the capital. A Saudi-led coalition soon began airstrikes in support of the ousted Yemeni government.

But what the Saudis first envisioned as a weeks-long campaign has dragged on nearly six years. More than 233,000 people have already died. The Saudi-led coalition imposed a blockade, restricting the flow of food, fuel and medicine.

The conflict has caused a chain of reactions, including internal displacement, economic collapse, the destruction of health systems and multiple disease outbreaks.

A U.N. refugee agency official recently wrote that COVID-19 isn't even the biggest concern as far as diseases go.

The war has made it difficult for aid groups to operate. About two-thirds of Yemenis likely rely on food assistance to survive, according to the U.N.

"We need access to all of these conflict and disaster zones where we do not get permits to operate as we should," Egeland says. "Just going from two towns here now in the capital, Sanaa, to Hajjah, we had to cross nine checkpoints. And at any of those, you know, you can be held back for any amount of time."

The U.S. has supported the Saudis during both the Obama and Trump administrations, with intelligence-sharing, logistical support and targeting information. The U.S. has sold billions of dollars-worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. U.S. bombs have killed people in hospitals, schools and homes.

Now the Biden administration says it's ending support for "offensive operations" and assigned a special envoy to pursue a diplomatic end to the war.

Egeland says the renewed peace effort is a "good thing." He hopes there is an "impulse also of other countries that are still fueling this war, Gulf countries and Iran among them, to end it, and then that these grown men with arms and power sit down before they kill all the children."

He says he also hopes "to see the U.S. really energetically lead this peace effort because we really need leadership in averting a famine caused by a man-made war."

Andrea Hsu and Justine Kenin produced and edited the audio interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Yemen, 50,000 people are already starving. Sixteen million could go hungry this year. Those were the grim facts presented today at a U.N. donor conference. Yemen has been devastated by a war that began in 2014 - fighting between the rebel Houthi government and pro-government forces led by Saudi Arabia. Now President Biden says U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive will end. And Secretary of State Tony Blinken has promised an additional $191 million in humanitarian aid.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Well, we're going to go to Yemen now and speak to someone deeply familiar with the crisis there. Jan Egeland has served in the U.N. He is currently secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, and he joins us on the line from Sana'a, Yemen.

Jan Egeland, welcome.

JAN EGELAND: Thank you.

KELLY: You are there, I know, to assess the situation. Can you tell us where you've been able to go, what you're seeing, what you're hearing?

EGELAND: Well, during the last 48 hours, I have traveled from the capital, Sana'a, in the north to two provinces called Amran and Hajjah. It was heartbreaking to see children now having starved for so long that they were dying from all of the associated diseases. We are seeing a relentless countdown to a possible famine that the world hasn't seen since Ethiopia in the 1980s.

KELLY: I was looking at pictures of you over the weekend, visiting with families. It looks like they're living in tents and shacks amid rubble. Describe the situation. Describe - what do they actually have to eat?

EGELAND: Well, many do not have nearly anything at all now. One community of families had sat next to a (inaudible).

KELLY: Next to a garbage dump, you're saying. Go on.

EGELAND: Garbage dump with a pile leftover food that the poor people of Sana'a throw away. This is subhuman conditions that I haven't seen anywhere to that extent. Then going further north, in one of the very few clinics that receive starved children, I met a mother with a girl, 9 years old. She looked 3 or 4 - beautiful girl. Khadja (ph) is her name. And the mother said, I want you to tell our story. And the story is that we had 14 children, now five of that. And Khadja is not able to walk anymore.

KELLY: The phone line is cutting in and out a little bit. So I just want to repeat what you are telling us. You're telling us about this girl. She is 9 years old, and you're saying she can no longer walk. She's dying.

EGELAND: She is. Hopefully at this clinic, they can now feed both the mother and this 9-year-old, but the rest of the family were elsewhere. In a place where there is very little aid, there is little access, there is no work, what needs to happen in Yemen are really three things. The donor conference needs to come up with $4 billion.

KELLY: With $4 billion, you're asking.

EGELAND: A lot of money but much less than is - what is spent on the senseless war, which is my second point. We need a famine prevention cease-fire, and we need access to all of these conflict and disaster zones where we do not get permits to operate as we should. Just going from two towns here now with the capital, Sana'a, to Hajjah, we had to cross nine checkpoints. And at any of those, you know, you can be held back for any amount of time. It is too difficult for aid groups to operate. We have too little funding, and there is an active war in a starvation area.

KELLY: That is Jan Egeland. He is secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, speaking to us from Sana'a, Yemen, about a truly grim situation underway there.

Mr. Egeland, thank you for your time.

EGELAND: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: After we spoke today, Egeland put out a statement expressing disappointment in the money pledged to Yemen so far - less than half the $4 billion he says the country desperately needs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.