The Blog

A Shameful Silence

In 2012/13 I had the good fortune to travel to Yemen, that beautiful country at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. I was working with a local organisation and local government to establish a programme that would enable poor women to access lifesaving delivery care and family planning. Before travelling there, and having never been to the Middle East, I only knew what I had read in the press and was nervous about my visit. Al Qaeda was active, kidnap a real threat and I had to be collected from the airport in an armoured car.

However, as is invariably the case, the reality is better than the press would have you believe. I spent several enjoyable weeks in the capital Sana'a working with some of the warmest, most hospitable people I have met; soaking up the atmosphere of one of the oldest cities in the world and learning about this fascinating country. My colleague Eman, a dedicated doctor and proud Yemeni, was my guide.

Life for the Yemenis was not easy, but the country had come out of a period of serious unrest and there was hope on the horizon. On my final visit things took a turn for the worse. An Al Qaeda cell stormed the military hospital in Sana'a with car bombs and AK-47s. Many died including a good colleague of mine. Intelligence suggested there were other car bombs driving around the city. After 24 fretful hours I flew out of the country, never to return. I was lucky.

From that time I have continued to work, at a distance, with Dr Eman and her dedicated team. I have talked to her weekly and heard a change come about in her. She is fearful. Since March 2015 when a coalition of forces, led by Saudi Arabia, started bombing the country in response to a coup by a tribal group (the Houthies) supported by the former dictator, Eman has become steadily more anxious. She has been living for a year in fear of sudden death from the air. She has had to move offices and house twice as those buildings have been severely damaged by air strikes; she was blown off her feet by a huge blast from a strike on a military installation - one of many in and around the city - and the conflict has claimed the lives of those she knows. Yet she is one of the lucky ones. She could leave the country for elsewhere in the region but she chooses to stay to take care of her father and because she is committed to helping her countrymen. However, many many others are less fortunate.

Since March 2015, due to a combination of coalition air strikes and ground warfare, more than 6,000 people have been killed, nearly 2,800 of which were civilians. Millions have been displaced and an already desperately poor country has been brought to its knees.

However, you probably didn't know anything about it.

You probably didn't know that across the country people are living with no electricity, no fuel, little in the way of medical supplies, scarce food and erratic water supplies - and that is in the upper class neighbourhoods of the capital city, Sana'a. You were probably unaware that the city of Taiz, population 600,000, has been under siege since November by the rebel force - with terrible consequences for its inhabitants. You heard all about sieges in Syria of course - but not Yemen. Yemen, which is being torn apart by civil war; Yemen which barely features in the multitude of news reports about the Middle East that we see every day.

And it's unlikely that you are fully conscious of the scale of the humanitarian crisis facing Yemen. 80% of its 25 million population now require humanitarian assistance. That's 20 million people who cannot feed themselves adequately. The equivalent of just under one third of the population of the UK.

But here's a strange thing. The media apparently has no real interest in a conflict that is tearing a country apart. Reports are there admittedly. Most of the major news outlets have covered the conflict in some way over the past months. But articles have been few and far between and are often buried deep within a paper or website. Television reporting has been even sparser; with even the BBC dedicating only minutes to Yemen, in comparison to the hours of reporting on Syria. Our politicians are conspicuously silent on the matter. Why is this?

Could it be that, despite displacing millions of people internally, the war in Yemen has not led to a surge of migrants heading towards our shores? Could it be that, despite the fact that Yemen has long been an Al Qaeda stronghold, and is now is home to a growing IS presence, the country is not seen as a serious terrorist threat to the West? Or could it be something else?

The UK has a long standing diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud has been a friend to the west, in an often hostile Middle East, for many decades. And there is, of course, the oil. Saudi Arabia remains one of the biggest oil producers in the world. Its oil fuels much of the Western world and keeps oil prices stable. Its wealth is heavily invested in the UK. The government of Saudi Arabia is Britain's biggest defence industry customer with current contracts worth over seven billion pounds and more in the pipeline. Could it be that the UK government doesn't want us to know about the war in Yemen where, by targeting civilians, its biggest customer is committing what could be war crimes on an almost daily basis? Could it be that our leaders want to remain quiet rather than upset their ally in the Middle East? If so, we should be angry, very angry. And we should do everything we can to let our politicians and our fellow countrymen know - now.

If you, like Eman, had warplanes circling, you wouldn't wait.