Yemen’s Collective Starvation: Where Money Can’t Buy Food, Water or Medicine

Photo by Felton Davis | CC BY 2.0

Yemen is in the grip of the world’s worst famine and public health crisis, with all aid to Sana’a and the north presently blocked by the closure of the aiport and closest port, al-Hodeidah. The airport of Sana’a has been closed to all except aid flights since August 2016 and even to aid since the renewed Saudi blockade in retribution for the Houthi (Al-Ansar) missile directed at Riyadh. For good measure, the Saudi Coalition then struck the radio navigation tower of Sana’a airport, eliminating the possibility of any aid traffic, with the brave and hypothetical exception of relying solely on the pilots’ sight, as the runways and terminal still are intact. Al-Hodeidah, the Red Sea port with the closest and most direct route to Yemen’s capital Sana’a, has been ceremonially “re-opened,” but no aid ships have as yet received permission to dock and unload their cargoes. International aid groups, for most of the millions in Yemen, are their only hope for food, clean water, medicine, and other essentials for life.

The Saudi Coalition blockade of north Yemen’s port and airport is not designed for keeping weapons out, as is their stated goal; to be sure, the revolutionaries with the Al-Ansar cause are not hard pressed to funnel illegal activity through the heavily-surveilled access points when there are two thousand miles of coastline. Instead, the blockade of al-Hodeidah and Sana’a airport cuts the most heavily populated areas of Yemen off from food, water, medicine, and fuel. Desperate calls from all of the humanitarian efforts currently maintaining this lifeline to millions have set the direness of the situation in stark terms: hundreds of people die every day as a direct result of the blockade.

To much of the world, Sana’a is an abstract, a forsaken stage for the next global tragedy, swiftly becoming synonymous with such dire famines as Darfur in Sudan and the hinterland of Somalia. A third-world corner where few have ventured, removed from our conscience by distance, culture, and even time. Yet, for millennia Sana’a was the royal capital of “Arabia Felix,” the name given by the ancient Romans to this fertile and productive southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Sana’a was, so the foundational legend goes, founded by the son of Noah, and subsequent human history made it an urbane, refined political and commercial center synonymous with luxury and sophistication. Up until a few years ago when the war began, it was possible to witness Sana’ani families’ fabled splendors and refinements.

No longer. War is truly the leveler of all. There is simply no food, clean water, or medicine to buy, as commercial shipments have been blocked for months now and the delivery of aid has been intentionally blocked. The fate of those in Sana’a and the cities of the north, rich or poor, is tied together by their desperate plight, and the haunting story of an ancient Himyarite princess is poignantly relevant. The medieval Yemenite historian Al-Hamdani wrote about Dibajah, the daughter of Nawf dhu-Shaqar ibn-dhi-Murathid, who walled herself in her tower to die. On a gold plate was inscribed the epitaph: “I have, during a famine, ordered my slave to purchase for me with a bushel of pearls with a bushel of flour, but he could not.” If her name strikes us as hopelessly remote, her predicament is all too familiar to the reality of Yemen today: there is no water, food, or medicine, to be had for any amount of money.

Thousands have died, millions are at risk. The blockade must be lifted immediately; barring this, it is the moral imperative of aid agencies and pilots to defy the Saudi-imposed death sentence. Will the Saudis sincerely shoot down an aid plane? We hold out hope that such grim scenarios remain hypothetical, but with every day, the needs of millions far outnumber the cruel dictates of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.


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