By Sheikh Muhammad Ali Waiswa
Fifteen centuries ago, Prophet Muhammad spoke of the Yemeni people: "The people of Yemen have come to you and they are more gentle and soft-hearted. Belief is Yemenite and Wisdom is Yemenite, while pride and haughtiness are the qualities of the owners of camels [i.e., Bedouins]."
The country of Yemen is one with an ancient history; an arid land, it was a favorite for tourists with gingerbread houses, coral reefs and stunning ecology. Today, Yemen is being systematically destroyed while the world stands by. Ancient dwellings, modern homes, hospitals and schools are all being bombarded. And millions of people are on the brink of starvation; cholera has taken the country in its grip. The result? Probably the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history.
The crisis is the result of a war that started in 2015. Houthi rebels took advantage of the weakness of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi's new government and tried to grab power. The Houthis are Shiite and backed by Iran. Hadi and his government are backed by a seven-country coalition of Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia.
But these details do not matter to the people who have no source of income, no education and no food. The Saudis have indiscriminately bombarded the Yemeni territory, hitting military facilities as well as tourist sites, homes, schools and hospitals.
It is estimated that 18 million people of the 27 million population are on the brink of starvation. The vast majority of the population is malnourished and in danger. Cholera is spreading throughout the country, and with the delivery of medical aid blocked by land and sea the future is grim for Yemen.
According to the United Nations, as of last week 5,000 children have been killed or severely injured in the ongoing war, while 400,000 are severely malnourished, on the brink of starvation.
In addition to those who have lost their lives in bombardments, UNICEF estimates that every 10 minutes one child dies from malnutrition, diarrhea or other preventable diseases. The health system is in ruins. There is no power, no medication. Less than half of the medical facilities in the country are able to function, closed due to shortages or bombed by the Saudi-led coalition. It is feared that this year, one million Yemenis may be caught up in the cholera epidemic
Last year, Save the Children warned that more than 50,000 Yemeni children were expected to die from starvation or disease by the end of 2018.
It is estimated that over 100 Yemeni children are dying every day. Save the Children stated that 400,000 children or more would need to be treated for acute malnutrition.
As stated above, the Yemeni crisis is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. 80 percent of the population does not have enough to eat. This situation in the country has been critical since 2015, but the Saudi imposed blockade on the borders and ports of Yemen has merely exacerbated the situation. Food, water and medical supplies cannot be brought in.
This is not an unusual story. People outside the country - that is, not Yemenis - are fighting for power and influence in the country. The Saudi-led coalition is fighting the Iranian-backed Houthis. What is being depicted as a sectarian conflict is actually nothing more than regional powers flexing their overgrown muscles. This is not a unique situation. It is a story that we are all familiar with. But once again, as in Syria and other areas of conflict, it is the local people who are paying the price.
According to Mark Lowcock of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the situation in Yemen "looks like the apocalypse." "The cholera outbreak is probably the worst the world has ever seen with a million suspected cases up to the end of 2017."
Food is scarce, medical supplies are scarce. Vaccines are scarce, and the vaccines that do exist in the country cannot be stored properly. Fuel prices are rising - nearly 100 percent. Inflation is rampant, making it harder for people to find food, heating and basic goods. Over 1 million public employees have not been paid their wages. The majority of families do not have stockpiles of food.
Yemen is a country that is reliant on food imports. Yemen is a nation that has little water and little agriculture. It has always been one of the poorest countries in the region. Before the civil war Yemen had to import nearly 90 percent of all its food. The barren terrain and low rainfall made agriculture almost impossible. Most of the imports came by sea. Even when there was no war, it was normal for there to be massive delays in getting food and supplies to the people. But with the blockades imposed by the Saudi coalition, the situation has become dire. Food is not the only import affected by the blockades. Medical supplies are in desperate short supply.
The BBC has reported that the conflict in Yemen, with the cruel blockade, has "left 20 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and created the world's largest food security emergency."
The war in Yemen is now approaching its 3rd year. A war between Iranian backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed efforts to restore Hadi to office has destroyed a country that was never wealthy or prosperous.
And this bodes ill for Yemen, which is now facing a growing cholera crisis. Every day more and more people are succumbing to the disease. With a shortage of medicine, food and water, the future is bleak for this country.
Add to this the fact that even people who have employment are not being paid their salaries. Education in schools has been interrupted by long strikes; other schools have been bombed. Many schools cannot function because it is too dangerous for the children to attend; according to UNICEF approximately 2 million Yemeni children are out of school, and this number continues to grow.
More than 3 million children have been born since the beginning of the war. These children are experiencing violence, disease, poverty and malnutrition. These children cannot receive essential medical aid.
And yet, the situation in Yemen does not make the front page. We are not as aware of what is happening in Yemen as we are aware of what is happening in Myanmar or Syria. The disinterest is not a matter of proximity. Myanmar is not near, but it remains close to our hearts. Nor is this disinterest a matter of religious or cultural sensibilities. Rather, the lack of forceful reporting is that alongside the difficulties in reporting the massive humanitarian disaster that is happening right now there is little interest.
Perhaps it is because there is no threat of a potential refugee crisis. Syrians can get to the Mediterranean and try to make it to Europe; this has caused hysteria in EU countries. This in turn forces the governments to try to prevent the influx.
Johannes van der Klaauw from UNHCR has said that Yemen had been forgotten even before the war started. He goes on to say that "I see that the international community and particularly Europe has now galvanized more support and also political action because the Syrians and the Iraqis are coming in large numbers to Europe. If the Yemenis would do the same I am sure there would be more attention for Yemen."
Just last week 30 or more people drowned off the coast of Yemen when their boat was capsized. There were reports that the refugees were being shot at when the boat overturned. The majority of the people in the boat were not Yemenis though - they were Somalis and Ethiopians fleeing Aden.
Yemenis cannot escape - they are blocked on land and sea, they are trapped in the borders of their country, waiting to be bombarded by the Saudi-led coalition. They are being starved to death and have been left to die without medical supplies or support. Their hospitals and schools are being destroyed.
There is another reason for a lack of media coverage. The blockade has prevented not only human right organizations from operating - few organizations have succeeded in negotiating the number of physical and bureaucratic obstacles. Many foreign journalists are also kept out. The Saudi coalition bans the U.N. from allowing journalists to board aid flights. Some journalists have managed to sneak past the blockade, but this is difficult and dangerous.
The Houthi rebels are also wary of journalists; Yemen is a very dangerous place for a reporter to be.
But the information is there. It is available for everyone to read and consider. All major newspapers have reported on the situation in Yemen, but millions dying, a country in danger of extinction is still not front-page news.
Unfortunately, the world is full of tragedy, horror, pain and suffering. Yet, no matter how many countries, how many people are in danger or are suffering, it is not possible to ignore even one instance of cruelty or inhumanity. Humanitarian disasters are exacerbated only when humanity turns the other way. Yemen is waiting for the world's attention. Perhaps we can give it before it is too late.
In conclusion, I appeal to peace loving Nations to intervene immediately and to reconcile the two brotherly states of Yemen and Saudi Arabia to stop a humanitarian catastrophe of the century.
The writer is the Deputy Mufti of Uganda and Imam of Makerere University Business School