It was a small paragraph buried in the newspaper this week. The Saudi-led coalition was again, despite international pleas, pushing on with Operation Golden Victory, their attempt to take the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah. Yemen is a semi-desert and desert land. Over three quarters of the country’s imported food passes through Hodeidah, as well as arms for the Houthi rebels whom the Saudis and United Arab Emirates (UAE) hope to interdict and defeat. Over five million children depend on these food supplies and already face starvation. UNICEF is struggling to get food aid into the country and the UN has warned of “the world’s worst humanitarian disaster”. This is what serious damage to, and complete closure of the port will achieve.
Yemen is desperately poor. From the 1960s, the international aid organization for which I worked had a development programme in Yemen. My memory of the people and the land is still vivid. As visiting CEO of the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), I stayed in Ja’fariyah, in a remote village high in the beautiful Raymah mountains. You had to walk to smaller settlements. These mountains may be unique; the higher you climb the noisier it gets. The poverty is as striking as the beauty.
In this terrain your fellow climbers are trying to make a living, mostly climbing up and down rather than along the ridge roads. You meet shepherds herding their flocks in front of them, men and donkeys carrying impossible loads and improbable items, a television set, a Kalashnikov, all moving at a punishing rate upwards, or skipping downwards like fleeing goats. You mount uneven steps, some cut into the basalt, some natural, passing small terraces where food crops and qat are grown. On the mountain top there is a buzz of human occupation: houses, villages, dirt ridge roads. You don’t climb mountains in Yemen to seek solitude.
The CIIR Yemen programme tried to reduce maternal and child mortality. It was called International Cooperation for Development and employed mostly Muslim volunteer development workers. They trained traditional birth attendants building on their experience and knowledge and introducing them to modern midwifery skills and better practice. The time around birth was a privileged period for imparting health – and sometimes feminist – messages. Unable to understand instructions on medical items, the women trainees asked to learn to read and a special course was developed. Women who completed the training and implemented it were the first women to appear on Yemeni television and soon played leadership roles in their villages, and nationally, promoting preventative health care. Fewer women and babies died in childbirth.
But as Yemeni women these trained birth attendants had to struggle. The distinctive Yemeni house, in the shape of a tower, reflects the relationships between men and women. Upstairs in the mafrage, enjoying magnificent views, the men converse and chew qat declining in Roman fashion in a large airy room. The television sets and Kalashnikovs laboriously brought up the mountains adorn these upstairs rooms. Food is placed before the men on floor mats and everyone dips in to common dishes. Downstairs the women cook and live with the children in gloomy rooms lit by windows set in high walls. The trained, literate birth attendants faced the daily challenges of an entrenched social conservatism. Yet this is only a partial picture of life in rural Yemen.
Uthman, one of the volunteers, a former Sudanese Trades Unionist, now a nurse, was something of a Muslim Saint in his dedication to the patients at the local health clinic. Mid-surgery, he once rescued a fellow development worker being operated on for appendicitis and, with a companion, stretchered her some 15 kilometres down the mountain to the regional hospital. He had spotted in time that the incompetent doctor operating on her couldn’t find the infected appendix.
One of CIIR’s development workers had a bad car accident: a well-known Sheikh accompanying her was killed. We feared the worst. Traditional rates of compensation could be considerable for such a locally notable figure. The development worker who had been driving risked a spell in prison until compensation was paid. But news came back from the Sheikh’s wife. “We loved her” she said of our staff member, “we ask only a small token to honour our customs and to show respect”.
Does Ja’fariyah’s inaccessibility still protect it from the worst ravages of war? I don’t know. But when you remember real people, live and loving human beings, reports of the numbers dying catch the eye and catch the heart. Few non-Muslims in UK give to the main Islamic development agencies which, on a much smaller scale, do courageous humanitarian work in these war zones. They need support but they cannot cope with the magnitude of the destruction.
The big international NGOs with the capacity to respond to this pending humanitarian disaster, OXFAM and Save the Children, have seen their funding from the public falling whilst the Tory back benches have succeeded in getting government to punish these Agencies by cutting their funds. A tiny number of male staff grievously abused their position of power and wealth for sexual favours, and this is the outcome. The public rightly expects higher standards of humanitarian agencies whose work is based on idealism. But does this justify walking away?
The question I want to ask when I remember the Yemen of the 1990s and the overseas development workers there is: Which is more important punishing the humanitarian agencies for poor governance and ignoring whistle-blowers, hardly a unique crime, or continuing to donate to enable these big Agencies to save the lives of thousands of children in a country no-one really knows or cares much about? Now the media interest has subsided the question can be, and should be, asked.
Save the Children estimate that up to 50,000 Yemeni children died of war-related hunger and disease in 2017 and some 400,000 were in need of treatment for malnutrition. This is no time to let transient outrage get the better of solidarity and compassion.