The Girl on the Train author on how she learned to care about Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, and what you can do to help.
Despite its gravity, the crisis in Yemen rarely hits the headlines. I am guilty myself. Until recently, I did not truly understand the scale of what is happening there. Rather incongruously, I became aware of the crisis in Yemen while attending a book fair in Morges, on the shores of Lake Geneva. In the stiflingly hot authors’ tent, I found myself chatting to a fellow crime writer who also happened to be a humanitarian relief worker.
This was August 2016, less than two months after the referendum on EU membership, and the aid worker was expressing frustration at the media’s obsession with Brexit while in Yemen a terrible man-made crisis was developing. A quick search online revealed a torrent of terrors: reports about a Yemen on the brink of famine, the outbreak of cholera, attacks on health facilities.
It’s difficult to comprehend this reality through statistics. The numbers are large, and the devastation vast and distant. But when I met with someone from the British Red Cross who had recently returned from the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, I began to get a better understanding of what the conflict in Yemen means for ordinary people.
I heard the story of Sameer, 28, whose life has been radically disrupted by the war. Unable to get a job despite his accountancy degree, Sameer has been volunteering with the Yemen Red Crescent Society (YRCS), the local branch of the Red Cross Red Crescent, since 2011, teaching first aid skills.
As the political power struggle, which developed during the Arab Spring, morphed into a full-scale war, Sameer’s role changed.
“Where communities are affected by the fighting, we go there. Sometimes it’s difficult because the fighting also affects our own communities. Our movements are restricted, we cannot actually leave our houses. This is frustrating, but we keep trying,” he told his colleague.
Sameer is one of 12,000 volunteers who make up the YRCS, a local humanitarian organisation battling in dangerous conditions to bring life-saving aid to some 22 million Yemenis in what has become the world’s single largest humanitarian crisis.
Yemen’s situation, already dire, took a sharp turn for the worse in October 2017. An escalation of violence in Sana’a and the closure in November of Yemen’s land borders, major seaports and airports, exacerbated an already critical situation.
At the urging of the international community, some restrictions have since been eased, but the effect of the blockade on a country which, even before the conflict began, imported 90 per cent of its food, has been catastrophic. Put bluntly, Yemen is starving to death: 60% of the population faces acute food shortages.
The effect on healthcare has been devastating, too. Less than half of health facilities are operational, while the supply of medicines and medical supplies has been strangled by the blockade. A cholera outbreak has affected more than a million people. Every 10 minutes, a child under the age of five dies from an entirely preventable cause.
The lack of engagement with Yemen’s tragedy is, in part, unsurprising. In a world obsessed with the tweeting of Donald Trump and the latest twists in the Brexit saga, attention to the tribulations of a poor Middle East country in the throes of a fiendishly complicated conflict was always likely to be small.
This is one of the reasons I felt I must put pen to paper and speak out about my concern for Yemen’s beleaguered population. I truly believe that, as a nation, if we knew more about what is happening to innocent families every single day in Yemen, we would be moved to help, as I have been.
Many governments have long been calling for political solutions, but in a crisis with an increasingly fragmented political landscape, a negotiated settlement is unlikely to be achieved quickly.
In the meantime, commercial goods must be allowed to enter the country and, most importantly, aid workers like Sameer, must be allowed to continue to do their jobs without fear of attack.
“I leave home every day and kiss my parents goodbye,” Sameer says. “I don’t know if I will see them again, but still I go. This is the only way I can help.”
Since March 2015, 10 Yemen Red Crescent Society volunteers and staff members have been killed. Aid is not a target. Help them continue their work by donating to the British Red Cross Yemen Crisis appeal.
Images: Getty Images