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Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?

The Yemen war uniquely combines tragedy, hypocrisy and farce. First come the casualties: around 10,000, almost 4,000 of them civilians. Then come those anonymous British and American advisers who seem quite content to go on “helping” the Saudi onslaughts on funerals, markets and other obviously (to the Brits, I suppose) military targets.

Then come the Saudi costs: more than $250m (£200m) a month, according to Standard Chartered Bank – and this for a country that cannot pay its debts to construction companies. But now comes the dark comedy bit: the Saudis have included in their bombing targets cows, farms and sorghum – which can be used for bread or animal fodder – as well as numerous agricultural facilities.

In fact, there is substantial evidence emerging that the Saudis and their “coalition” allies – and, I suppose, those horrid British “advisers” – are deliberately targeting Yemen’s tiny agricultural sector in a campaign which, if successful, would lead a post-war Yemeni nation not just into starvation but total reliance on food imports for survival. Much of this would no doubt come from the Gulf states which are currently bombing the poor country to bits.

Mundy points out that a conservative report from the ministry of agriculture and irrigation in the Yemeni capital Sana’a, gathered from its officers across the country, details 357 bombing targets in the country’s 20 provinces, including farms, animals, water infrastructure, food stores, agricultural banks, markets and food trucks.

These include the destruction of farms in Yasnim, the Baqim district of Saadah province and in Marran. Mundy has compared these attacks with figures in the Yemen Data Project, which was published some weeks ago. Her verdict is a most unhappy one.

“According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2.8 per cent of Yemen’s land is cultivated,” Mundy says. “To hit that small amount of agricultural land, you have to target it.” Saudi Arabia has already been accused of war crimes, but striking at the agriculture fields and food products of Yemen in so crude a way adds merely another grim broken promise by the Saudis.

The kingdom signed up to the additional protocol of the August 1949 Geneva Conventions which specifically states that “it is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock…for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population…whatever the motive…”

The fact that Yemen has long been part of Saudi Arabia’s proxy war against Shiites and especially Iran – which has been accused, without evidence, of furnishing weapons to the Shia Houthi in Yemen – is now meekly accepted as part of the Middle East’s current sectarian “narrative” (like the “good” rebels in eastern Aleppo and the “very bad” rebels in Mosul). So, alas, have the outrageous bombings of civilians. But agricultural targets are something altogether different.

Academics have been amassing data from Yemen which strongly suggests that the Saudis’ Yemen campaign contains a programme for the destruction of rural livelihood.

Martha Mundy, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, who is currently working in Lebanon with her colleague Cynthia Gharios, has been researching through Yemeni agriculture ministry statistics and says that the data “is beginning to show that in some regions, the Saudis are deliberately striking at agricultural infrastructure in order to destroy the civil society”.

In a lecture in Beirut, Mundy has outlined the grievous consequences of earlier economic policies in Yemen – cheap American wheat from the 1970s and the influx of food from other countries which discouraged farmers from maintaining rural life (terracing of farms, for example, or water husbandry) – and the effect of Saudi Arabia’s war on the land. “The armies and above all air forces of the ‘oil-dollar’,” she said, have “…come to destroy physically those products of Yemeni labour working with land and animals that survived the earlier economic devastation.”

There are photographs aplenty of destroyed farms, factories and dead animals lying in fields strewn with munitions – effectively preventing farmers returning to work for many months or years. Poultry and beehive farms have been destroyed.

Even today, more than half the population of Yemen relies in part – or wholly – on agriculture and rural husbandry. Mundy’s research through the files of other ministries suggests that technical support administration buildings for agriculture were also attacked. The major Tihama Development Authority on the Red Sea coastal plain, which was established in the 1970s – and houses, as Mundy says, “the written memory of years of ‘development’ interventions” – is responsible for a series of irrigation structures. It has been heavily bombed twice.

But I guess that one war – or two – in the Middle East is as much as the world can take right now. Or as much as the media are prepared to advertise. Aleppo and Mosul are quite enough. Yemen is too much. And Libya. And “Palestine”…

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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