“We didn’t expect them to hit a wedding,” says Mohammed. The Yemeni father had just finished feasting; the singing and dancing was starting. Like a scene straight out of ‘Homeland’, the wedding was interrupted by an air strike that killed up to 40 people, including Mohammed’s little daughter, Jood, aged five. “We recognised her from her hair ribbon,” he says. “There was no face.”
Another father’s newborn baby passed away due to oxygen shortages in Tai’z, in the Yemeni Highlands overlooking the famous Red Sea. “My son was 14 hours old when he died… the doctors told us needed intensive care and oxygen… We took him to every hospital we possibly could before he finally died. I wanted to take him outside the city but there was no way out.”
“I want to go out and play,” says eight-year-old Faris, as he lies in his hospital bed. Then the burned and wounded boy turns pleadingly to his grandfather: “Will I live? Will I live?” Faris and his family were asleep when a missile hit their house, killing his mother and brother.
Faris’ story – and that of many more children – is featured on ABC's Foreign Correspondent (iView). Journalist Sophie McNeill reported from the frontlines in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, which has been devastated by a war that’s claimed more than 6500 lives and left millions starving. More than half of the casualties are civilians, many of them children. According to the United Nations, innocent Yemenis have been deliberately targeted by a US-backed Saudi coalition.
“[The war] is to do with a battle for control and influence in the Middle East between the Saudis and Iran,” McNeill told marie claire. "The Saudis are fighting a rebel group in Yemen, the Houthis, that is aligned with Iran. So it's part of a regional power struggle that is fuelling violence and conflict all over – in Syria, Iraq and now, Yemen.” Adding insult to injury, branches of ISIS and al-Qaeda have also joined the fighting.
It’s a war with no ‘rules’. Schools and hospitals are not safe. On August 13, at least 10 children were left dead and 21 injured when an air strike decimated a school in northern Yemen. The students were aged between eight and 15, reports Medicins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
Yemenis are literally starving. Before the fighting, Yemen imported about 90 per cent of its food. Thanks to a blockade led by the Saudi coalition, food prices have risen 60 per cent, making it impossible for parents to feed their kids, explains NcNeill. Of the country’s population of 25 million, 14 million people are ‘food insecure’ (i.e. hungry) and close to seven million people are ‘severely food insecure’ (starving), according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“One in three Yemeni kids is severely malnourished. We met families whose children were so malnourished they died while we were there. It's just horrific,” says McNeill.
Amnesty International says that at least 83 per cent of Yemenis rely on humanitarian assistance in order to survive.
Medicine is scarce. There are no drugs for 40,000 Yemeni cancer patients. It’s getting more difficult for MSF to treat the people who need it most. Since one of the hospitals supported by MSF was hit by an air strike one week ago, killing 19 people, the organisation has been forced to withdraw from six hospitals in northern Yemen. It was the fourth time an MSF facility has been attacked in the past 12 months, says McNeill. “MSF says it shares the coordinates of all its locations with the Saudi coalition. How can they keep doing this? MSF is the only one providing free healthcare. MSF is absolutely saving lives in Yemen everyday.”
Naturally, McNeill, a Middle Eastern correspondent, has been personally affected by her experience reporting from Yemen. “The situation is one of the worst I’ve seen in the Middle East. It's a country wrecked by a terrible war combined with just absolute poverty. It was absolutely heartbreaking. I can't stop thinking about the people we met there.”
Everywhere you look, she says, there is war and tragedy. So it’s not surprising that Yemen hasn’t made the headlines. “With Syria and Iraq, it is hard to keep up; the Middle East is just on fire now,” concedes McNeill. “But it's also really convenient to ignore this war. France, the UK and the US make billions selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. The US also feels like it needs to keep Saudi Arabia on side as an ally in the region for a whole lot of reasons. That's why they haven't been very vocal when it comes to condemning the Saudi-led coalition for the horrific cost on civilians.
“This is really a forgotten war that we don't know enough about. It's difficult for reporters to travel to Yemen and now that airstrikes have started up again, it's going to become even harder to get these stories out. We just can't continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering that goes on in this region.”