Famine looms in Ye­men block­ade

Saudi-led clo­sure of war-torn na­tion’s ports could cause mil­lions to starve, U.N. says.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Nabih Bu­los Bu­los is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

BEIRUT — Even for Ye­me­nis ac­cus­tomed to the bru­tal economies of life un­der a years-long siege, the ef­fect of a block­ade of all air, sea and land ports into the coun­try was a sur­prise.

“Food mer­chants im­me­di­ately dou­bled all their prices. Fuel, in one mo­ment, dis­ap­peared from the mar­kets and the price of what re­mains is in­sanely high,” said Ye­meni civil rights ac­tivist Baraa Shaiban in a phone interview Thurs­day from Lon­don.

“And those who are sick, who need to travel for treat­ment, they’re the worst hit,” Shaiban said.

The re­sult of the clo­sure by a Saudi Ara­bian-led coali­tion could be a famine af­fect­ing “mil­lions of vic­tims,” said Mark Low­cock, the United Na­tions un­der­sec­re­tary­gen­eral for hu­man­i­tar­ian af­fairs, in a Wed­nes­day brief­ing at the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

“It will not be like the famine that we saw in South Su­dan ear­lier in the year where tens of thou­sands of peo­ple were af­fected. It will not be like the famine which cost 250,000 peo­ple their lives in So­ma­lia in 2011,” said Low­cock.

There were re­ports Wed­nes­day that Saudi Ara­bia would al­low work to re­sume at the south­ern port of Aden, but as of late Thurs­day, it was un­clear whether aid boats had been able to dock, said Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N. hu­man­i­tar­ian co­or­di­na­tor for Ye­men, in a phone interview.

The coali­tion’s im­po­si­tion of the block­ade Mon­day came af­ter the Houthis — the rebels who seized power three years ago and whom Saudi Ara­bia views as a proxy for Iran — launched a bal­lis­tic mis­sile tar­get­ing the air­port of the Saudi cap­i­tal, Riyadh.

Though the pro­jec­tile was in­ter­cepted, the in­ci­dent en­raged Saudi lead­ers, who called it an act of war by Iran.

In re­sponse, the coali­tion sealed off Ye­men to “ad­dress vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties” in its in­spec­tion pro­ce­dures, which had al­ready slowed aid de­liv­er­ies to a crawl in Houthi-con­trolled ports such as Saleef and Hodeida. The lat­ter is the main en­try point for roughly 70% of Ye­men’s food im­ports, in­clud­ing those reach­ing the cap­i­tal, Sana.

The coali­tion even shut down en­try points un­der the con­trol of its ally, the in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized gov­ern­ment-in-ex­ile of Pres­i­dent Abdu Rabu Man­sour Hadi, which the coali­tion has sup­ported with a bomb­ing cam­paign that hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tions say has killed or wounded tens of thou­sands of civil­ians. It also im­posed a siege be­gin­ning in March 2015 that has all but crip­pled Ye­me­nis’ abil­ity to cope and pre­cip­i­tated a wide-scale cholera cri­sis that has af­fected about 900,000 peo­ple.

The U.S. has pro­vided arms as well as lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port, in­clud­ing midair re­fu­el­ing, to the coali­tion.

The Red Cross said Tues­day that the lat­est clo­sure pre­vented it from de­liv­er­ing a ship­ment of chlo­rine tablets, nec­es­sary for the pre­ven­tion of cholera, and fears that it will not be able to de­liver 50,000 vials of much­needed in­sulin.

Hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­cess to the coun­try has also been im­peded, the United Na­tions said.

Saudi Ara­bia “is killing Ye­me­nis not only with clus­ter bombs, but with star­va­tion and dis­ease,” said Nasser Arrabyee, a Sana-based jour­nal­ist, in a phone interview Thurs­day. “It’s a mat­ter of life and death for us.”

The Saudi gov­ern­ment blamed the Houthis, say­ing in a let­ter de­liv­ered to the U.N. on Wed­nes­day that their “con­tin­ued re­sort to vi­o­lence, re­fusal to re­turn to le­git­i­macy and abide by the rel­e­vant Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions, have re­sulted in the cat­a­strophic hu­man­i­tar­ian sit­u­a­tion and is ob­struct­ing the po­lit­i­cal so­lu­tion to the con­flict.”

It ac­cused Iran of man­u­fac­tur­ing and sup­ply­ing the mis­sile launched by the Houthis, which it said was “clear ev­i­dence of Iran’s hos­tile be­hav­ior.”

“Iran’s con­tin­ued role in smug­gling weapons to the Houthis is a clear sign of its com­plete dis­re­gard for in­ter­na­tional obli­ga­tions.”

The clo­sures come as part of a larger es­ca­la­tion by Saudi Ara­bia against what it sees as Ira­nian in­ter­fer­ence in the re­gion.

Over the last week, it has in ef­fect de­posed Saad Hariri, Le­banon’s prime min­is­ter, and is hold­ing him against his will, ac­cord­ing to Hariri’s party.

Nikki Ha­ley, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the U.N., said Tues­day that her gov­ern­ment was “com­mit­ted to con­tain­ing Iran’s desta­bi­liz­ing ac­tions and will not turn a blind eye to these se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions of in­ter­na­tional law by the Ira­nian regime.”

McGoldrick, the U.N. hu­man­i­tar­ian co­or­di­na­tor, said that even if aid could reach Aden, it is only one of sev­eral ports needed for hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­cess.

“It’s not an al­ter­na­tive, and it doesn’t have enough ca­pac­ity to sub­sti­tute for” Hodeida and Saleef, said McGoldrick. Aside from food, he added, the lack of fuel, used to pump clean wa­ter, has forced peo­ple to “take a gam­ble” on un­treated wa­ter, po­ten­tially ex­ac­er­bat­ing the cholera chal­lenge.

Ship­ping aid to Aden would force hu­man­i­tar­ian groups to truck ship­ments to Sana, nearly 200 miles to the north­west, and other Houthi-held ar­eas in the north of the coun­try, a jour­ney of any­where from 12 to 18 hours across a chaotic bat­tle­field with dozens of check­points run by a patch­work of mili­tias.

It would also al­low the coali­tion to con­trol aid flows in the coun­try — a chill­ing de­vel­op­ment for those living in Houthi-con­trolled ar­eas, said Kris­tine Beck­erle, Ye­men re­searcher for Hu­man Rights Watch.

“Given the coali­tion’s im­mense power over what goes in and out of Ye­men, their abil­ity to af­fect civil­ian life is ex­po­nen­tial,” Beck­erle said in a phone interview.

“For­get­ting pol­i­tics, Sana is the largest pop­u­la­tion cen­ter, with peo­ple who have noth­ing to do with the war,” she said. “It’s … will­ful ig­no­rance of what it means to civil­ians to close par­tic­u­lar ports of en­try.”

And al­though she wel­comed the open­ing of Aden’s port, she warned that re­liance on Aden should not be­come the per­ma­nent ar­range­ment.

“Even be­fore Mon­day, the U.N. was rais­ing the alarm bells and say­ing it needs more ac­cess … and the coali­tion did the ex­act op­po­site,” she said, adding that other clo­sures that hurt civil­ians, such as the shut­ting down of the Sana air­port in Au­gust 2016, had been al­lowed to be­come the sta­tus quo.

Yahya Arhab EPA/Shut­ter­stock

A SAUDI-LED siege since 2015 has left Ye­me­nis strug­gling to cope with mal­nu­tri­tion and dis­ease even be­fore this week’s block­ade.

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