Georgia Gee reports on the world’s worst humanitarian crisis you don’t know about.
How do you make the news feel ‘new’? This is a fundamental concern for any journalist, but one that becomes even more consequential when covering a war-torn country with over 20 million people starving.
Often labelled as the “forgotten war”, Yemen is in the midst of a humanitarian emergency of catastrophic proportions. Since March 2015, Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of Gulf states against the Houthi rebels in Northern Yemen after the rebels drove out the US-backed and pro-Saudi government. After four years of escalating conflict, the Yemeni people continue to bear the brunt of ongoing hostilities and severe economic decline.
The statistics are shocking and never-ending. 80% of the population – over 24 million people – are in desperate need of humanitarian aid and protection. A report by UNICEF revealed that eight children are killed or injured every day across the country’s 31 active conflict zones. Furthermore, it has become a breeding ground for disease, currently experiencing the world’s worst cholera epidemic.
Despite this, a YouGov poll at the end of the last year showed that 42% of the British public didn’t know that the war in Yemen even exists. A lot less are probably aware of the fact that since the war began the UK government has given over three billion pounds of arms to Saudi Arabia.
The murder of well-known Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October at the country’s consulate in Istanbul shocked the world and brought the details of the crisis, and the involvement of Western countries, to light. But does it take the murder of one man trying to report on the crisis to make that of tens of thousands hit the headlines? The international media had previously paid shamefully little attention to the war with most news outlets quoting a two-year-old UN figure of 10,000 as the death toll. According to the latest report by ACLED (Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project) the number is more than six times higher.
Last week, Pi and STAND UK, a student-led movement that aims to make mass atrocity prevention a national priority, hosted an event ‘Talking Peace: Speaking Truth to Power in Yemen’, which included speakers Nawal Al-Maghafi, a Yemeni-British journalist, and Stephen Bell, Treasurer for Stop the War Coalition. Al-Maghafi became a Special Correspondent for the BBC after she began making video reports in Yemen. Her investigation into a 2015 ‘double tap attack’ – where an initial strike on a target is followed by a second one to kill those who show up to aid or mourn the victims – on a funeral provided key evidence in the case against weapon sales to Saudi Arabia by the UK. Her coverage also led to DEC Yemen appeal which raised over £25 million for those affected.
During the talk both Nawal and Stephen spoke about the current devastation in Yemen and their fears for the country’s future. But what has stuck with me is not only the disturbing facts and the manner of the West’s involvement, but the issue of making these facts ‘interesting’. Nawal spoke about the difficulty of getting, and subsequently keeping, an audience interested in the crisis. Following the atrocities covered in Iraq and Syria, she said that there is a “public fatigue” with warzones.
I, alongside other students – 14 London societies collaborated to host a ‘Vigil for Yemen’ at the end of February, organised by the group London Students for Yemen – continue to watch, yet of course remain detached from, the crisis. A ceasefire between the two sides was agreed in Sweden in December, but broader talks to end the conflict are yet to take place and the peace deal in the main port city is reported to be on the verge of breakdown. With the potential fallback into full scale war and a fatal attack that killed five children just last Thursday, it seems absurd and uncomfortably disconcerting that the “relevance” and “relatability” of the war even comes into question, particularly for those reporting on it.