Message of the Day: Hunger, War

Food for the hungry, stolen for war, CNN investigative report, May 20, 2019


Food for the hungry is being stolen for war in Yemen, an undercover investigation by CNN reports today.

This report, in conjunction with Yesterday’s Sunday Review piece by Nick Kristof in The New York Times, which references an earlier CNN report as well, provides the reminder that must never be forgotten.

Power has no ideology. In the hands of a few against the many who have no power, it murders and starves and commits war crimes and crimes against humanity without conscience.

We covered the horror in Yemen previously in our post on October 15, last year.

A bipartisan effort passed by the US Congress recently attempted to end US support for the war in Yemen and produced the first bill on the War Powers Act to cross a president’s desk. It was the first attempt by Congress to restore and take responsibility for its constitutional role in declaring war in a long time.

President Trump vetoed it. But honestly, it didn’t make him different from his predecessors on the issue. Either of willingness to limit White House war-making authority or to limit support for Saudi Arabia. In fact, it took the virtually public barbaric killing of a Washington Post journalist by the Saudis and the constant images of starving and bombed children in Yemen for Congress to do what it did.

And the Hadi government in Yemen that the Saudis back has international recognition, with the UK, France and others joining the US in supporting Saudi military intervention.

And the war was started, in the main, by the Houthis backed by Iran.

It has become a proxy war between Iran and the Saudis, and the US and its allies. As Kristoff points out, talk of war between the US and Iran can obscure the fact that its already happening in Yemen, and elsewhere.

And as CNN’s investigation today reminds–there are no good guys in this story. Iran through its support of the Houthis is consciously starving countless people.

If you want to somehow pick between Saudi Arabia and Iran, good luck with that argument.

Then there’s the nuclear issue.

Arguably, the signature accomplishment of the Obama administration (with all it’s serious faults in the area–what was and wasn’t done in Syria especially–we’ll be back to that again) was the nuclear deal with Iran, as pointed out more than once by us, backed by–everybody (well, almost, the Saudis and Israelis, frenemies, didn’t like it)–including the Russians and Chinese, who had backed sanctions with Iran as well. That unity is long gone and the sacking of the nuclear deal by the US basically gives Iran the excuse to do what they stopped–developing nukes. Which would mean war if they did. 

The deal was sacked in the name of the bad deeds of Iran, but the deal was never about anything but nukes–for good reason. If Iran nukes up or is feared to, the Saudis and others in the region will too, and that’s Armageddon in the actual biblical spot for sure, even if the US and Israelis didn’t strike Iran first, which they virtually doubtless would. 

A stop on that, even for a limited time, gave the possibility of dealing with other issues–and a natural process inside Iran of a younger population which rejects the clerical dictatorship leading to its certain demise in time. And while the US and its allies would fight Iran on other fronts, hopefully a containment of the situation could occur while the above process was encouraged.

The theories on where Trump is on war or no war with Iran change daily. But the facts on the ground that keep feeding the carnage in Yemen remain.

In an unimaginable twist that has occurred elsewhere and is like a bad version of groundhog’s day, CNN’s previous investigation showed that Saudi Arabia and its partners have transferred American-made weapons to al Qaeda-linked fighters in Yemen, violating their agreements with the US.

Saudi Arabia. The place that helped grow al Qaeda into the group that perpetrated 9/11 on the US.

And current US policy is basically–that’s the way it is (once again).

This fog of war, the fog in general seemingly thicker than ever covering up facts, is everywhere, and been going on for some time.

There are many issues here which become their own repetitive mantras that are both true and one-dimensional ideological twitches–the history of the Europeans, US, Russia (pre, during and post-Soviet), Turks and other power-players in the area, the history of places like Iran and Saudi Arabia going back millennia, and in the end, as always, the long twilight struggle between the haves and have-nots.

David Beasley, head of the World Food Programme, told the BBC World Service today (May 21 in the UK) that Yemen is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world currently and some 12 million people–almost 40% of the population–are on the brink of starvation.

The UN and the World Food Programme are trying to make a difference. A different kind of intervention was and is possible. And sometimes it requires force as an element. Once in a blue moon it’s happened, but too often not when needed, and too often at best a grave error, at worst a naked power-play with no other values attached.  The UN itself is a work in progress as pointed out often, a context tied up with the power competitions of UN member states. We’ve covered all these issues at length and will return to them.

Here we focus with a specific limited purpose that also has potential wider application. We focus on the murder by starvation and war of the people of Yemen perpetrated by all sides in the game of power.

Change often happens focused on a particular time and place. The elements of such change because of the focus on Yemen have been shown to have a possibility by ending the horror there. Alternatively, the danger of the crime of obliterating a people and wider-war resulting in inconceivable obliteration stare us in the face. It’s not something out there we get to watch from the cheap seats. It will hit us all one way or another–and we all have the responsibility to make choices and do whatever we can.

Here’s today’s CNN report and the Sunday Review piece in The New York Times:

“CNN exposes systematic abuse of aid in Yemen”

By Sam Kiley, Sarah El Sirgany and Brice Lainé, May 20, 2019, CNN

Bani Qais, in Houthi-controlled Yemen (CNN) Issham Beshir is two years old. She’s twig-thin and so badly malnourished she’s yet to take her first steps. The world is trying to help her and nearly 16 million more hungry people in Yemen by sending food.

But, according to UN reports and CNN reporting on the ground, some of that food is being stolen by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, on a scale far greater than has been reported before.

Issham Beshir sits on her mother's lap with her younger brother inside their hut in the village of Bani Qais.

Last year the United Nations found 1% of aid was going missing, acknowledging that the abuse could be more widespread. Now, a CNN undercover investigation has found dozens of areas in the war-torn country where — on paper — aid has been delivered. But in reality, many families are not being helped.
The UN suspects that supplies are being diverted away from famished children toward fighters or supporters of the Iran-backed forces that control much of the country, though the Houthis and their officials deny this. One Houthi aid coordination director called the allegations “crazy.”
Issham and the people of Bani Qais in northwest Yemen have received no grain, cooking oil or other aid supplies for weeks and weeks. They are not starving. Not yet. But the children are stunted by malnutrition, which will cramp the growth of their bodies and their brains. And many, many are getting sick.
They are victims of a spat between the UN’s World Food Programme and a Houthi-appointed aid agency that had the contracts to distribute WFP food but failed to account for who was getting what. The WFP switched to a different local NGO in Bani Qais, where Issham lives, but humanitarian and local sources said that aid was now being held up because local tribal leaders associated with the Houthi government were blocking its work.
“They don’t reach us here. They used to give us grains and flour but then they refused to give it to anyone. They don’t give us anything,” said Issham’s mother, Hajja Ibrahim.

Issham is two years old, but has yet to take her first steps. Her family has received no food aid in weeks.

Some days their father makes 25 cents selling water to buy them some food. Other days he is not so lucky. The family is surviving on bread and water.

The villages of the ‘doomed’

The clans in this cluster of villages are referred to as the “zabhana,” which roughly translates as the “doomed.”
The people are Bedouin. Once nomadic, they are now settled but considered to have little tribal clout by the powerful in Yemen, whether that’s the ousted government or the Houthi rebels that have taken control of the north of this country.

Bani Qais is one in a cluster of villages settled by former nomads.

On a 2,500-mile (4,000-km) journey through Yemen’s mountains and along its coastline, CNN investigated missing supplies and the systematic diversion of aid and corruption in Houthi-controlled areas.
We spoke to Yemeni and international NGO staff, local officials and residents in four provinces held by the Houthis and obtained United Nations documents detailing the previously hidden scale of the problem.

How the alleged fraud was covered up

Last year the World Food Programme publicly complained that about 1,200 metric tons of food was “diverted” — diplomatic speak for “stolen” — from families in the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa, in the previous August and September.
Distribution lists had thumbprints, supposedly from people confirming receipt of food, but some 60% of beneficiaries numbering in the thousands in seven districts in the capital didn’t receive any aid, the WFP said, asserting there had been fraud. As well as falsified records, the WFP said it discovered unauthorized people were given food and other supplies were being sold in markets in the city.

Aid recipients mark a thumbprint to confirm they have received supplies.

Along with the public complaint, Beasley wrote to the leadership of the Houthis, threatening to stop collaboration with the Houthi government-linked charity blamed for the problems, and to cut off aid altogether.
“WFP has a zero-tolerance policy on fraud and corruption, and we cannot allow any interference from any person or entity … including from your officials,” the letter states.
The immediate problem was addressed when the Houthis and WFP agreed on a new system of registration and biometric verification to stop abuses. But that’s not yet working.

Missing supplies, missing money

In March, CNN met a dozen women at the headquarters of the Amanat El-Asemah, the local municipal authority in charge of aid distribution in Sanaa that the WFP said was at the center of the aid manipulation. Each complained they had not received aid.
Amira Saleh says she found her name listed as a beneficiary, but told us she and her family of 10 last received aid six months ago. She also found records indicating she received 110,000 Yemeni riyals (about $440) from another charity, but she says she received nothing.
“Every now and then we get an SMS directing us to a school to get the food aid,” she said. But when there were no supplies, she says she asked again where she should go. “I saw my name, but there is no notification or communication where I can get the aid.”
Around her, women in black face veils said they were repeatedly refused aid because they don’t have documents — like electricity bills and school certificates — which can only be obtained from the towns they fled.

Women line up to ask for international aid in Yemen.

UN takes drastic action

CNN’s investigation found the issue affects many more than those in the capital.
Some 33 areas in Yemen showed a wide gap between the amount of aid that has been officially delivered and the impact on the ground, according to internal aid documents reviewed by CNN.
Twenty of these areas, including Bani Qais, were in Houthi-controlled territories, where 70% of Yemenis live, the documents showed.
And now, without Houthi permission to change aid distribution partners and monitor where the aid is going, the WFP aid has not reached its intended beneficiaries.

Lise Grande oversees all UN aid work in Yemen, working with the Houthis and the internationally recognized government.

It’s a radical new strong-arm approach for the WFP, which is mainly funded by governments, with the United States being the largest donor in 2018, when it contributed more than $2.5 billion.
In the past, it and other aid organizations have prioritized the “humanitarian imperative” to try to help those in desperate need, even if there were problems of corruption and misuse of aid that could lead to disastrous consequences. In Somalia in the early 1990s, warlords abused the system so much that the UN authorized an invasion to stop them, but not before an estimated 300,000 had died.
And South Sudan’s war was extended for years, perhaps decades, by the theft of food and fuel intended as aid.

Men stack sacks of flour at a warehouse for WFP supplies in Hodeidah.

Children now skin and bone

On our journey through the rebel-held territories, many villagers we met were resigned to corruption as a fact of life, some blaming the government, others blaming the international community. What they know for sure is the impact on them.
In March, the UN even cut supplies to people driven from their homes by fighting and bombardment because WFP representatives had not been able to monitor the distribution of food there.

In Aslam, this boy is being treated for acute malnutrition and a lung infection.

Nurse Mekkiyah Al-Aslami says the long-running war has made a terrible situation even worse.

Food for favors

In March this year, the WFP was also still struggling to get permission for monitors to keep an eye on food distributions in Saada, deep in Houthi territory in the far northwest of the country, 20 or so miles from the Saudi border.
Several diplomats and sources inside the humanitarian agencies said some aid was being diverted to fighting units or sold on the open market, but most was being used to buy political support for the Houthi cause.

Aid supplies donated by the World Food Programme to Yemen are intended for specific populations.

Hit by air strikes, corruption and gun-running

The use of air strikes and civilian casualties has undermined support for the Saudi coalition in Europe and the United States. In Washington, Congress recently voted to end American backing of and arms shipments to the campaign — but that resolution was vetoed by President Donald Trump.

A destroyed building is pictured in the town of Midi, near the border with Saudi Arabia, in April.

Houthis say they are ‘happy’ with aid

The Houthis rejected the accusations put to them by CNN.

Hussin Al-Ezzi, deputy foreign minister of the Houthi government in Sanaa, says they are happy when aid reaches people.

Controlling food, information and people

There remains a deep-rooted suspicion of foreign NGOs and the media in general.
In Hodeidah, a low-level government functionary threatened to detain a CNN team if he did not sit in on a meeting with UN officials.
In the capital, a local NGO worker was questioned by security after speaking to CNN without the presence of the government minder.

A view of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, which is controlled by the Houthis.

Sanaa residents twice approached us to complain, in English, of living in a police state.
“If I told you the truth about living here, I’d be shot,” one whispered before slipping away.

Armed men raise their weapons as they gather near Sanaa to show their support of the Houthi movement in February.

A shattered lifeline

Even if all the problems between the Houthis and the UN could be resolved, restrictions imposed by the Saudi and UAE-led coalition on the strategic Hodeidah port mean that aid trickles in to the north at the best of times.

Supplies are unloaded from a ship that made it through the blockade to Hodeidah.

Aid has to be trucked up steep roads from the port to needy communities living in the mountains.

A ship at the docks in Hodeidah, Yemen.

UN: ‘We’re here to keep people alive’

While Houthi officials may be thinking longer term about strategy, politics and the war, for many if not most in Houthi-controlled areas, the only thought is of their hunger.

A pile of grain lies at a damaged warehouse in Hodeidah last January amid fears the vital supplies would spoil.

With food not getting to the right people but instead used to buy support, feed fighters or sold for funds, CNN asked the UN’s Grande if she was worried that the aid programs could actually be prolonging Yemen’s devastating war.
“Certainly, humanitarians are not political. We’re here to keep people alive,” she replied, notably not saying no.

A Yemeni child who fled fighting is pictured at a makeshift camp in Abs this month.

. . .
A neighborhood in Sana, Yemen, a day after it was hit by a Saudi-led airstrike on Thursday. CreditCreditYahya Arhab/European Pressphoto Agency, via Shutterstock

Is America headed for a war involving Iran?

Actually, we’re already mired in one. It’s the unconscionable war in Yemen, where we are complicit in the deaths of almost a quarter million Yemenis so far, many of them children who have starved to death.

Just a few days ago, bombs (perhaps American made) killed four Yemeni children. Every 12 minutes, another child in Yemen dies.

Yemen is a complicated place with many bad actors, but here’s the bottom line: Because of our enmity toward Iran and our bond with Saudi Arabia, we are helping to starve and bomb Yemeni children.

With tensions in the region high, Saudi Arabia is now encouraging the United States to escalate the hostilities and order a military strike on Iran. “They must be hit hard,” Arab News, a newspaper with ties to the Saudi government, declared on Thursday.

Beware. That was the Saudi line as well in 2015 when Saudi Arabia’s Mad Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, intervened in Yemen. He wanted to show his toughness and assumed that his armed forces would crush an Iran-backed faction there called the Houthis.

Instead, the Saudi intervention resulted in Iran gaining influence in Yemen, while the Saudis have helped cause what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. With talk of American conflict with Iran again in the air, Yemen should be a reminder that wars are easy to get into, harder to exit.

It is Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that drop the bombs on Yemen, but Washington supplies weaponry and intelligence that allow this war to drag on indefinitely. American policy is to support the starvation of Yemeni children because they are ruled by a faction with ties to Iran.

This should not be a partisan issue. President Barack Obama backed the Saudis in Yemen, and President Trump has doubled down on that support.

Most presidential candidates (with the exception of Senator Bernie Sanders, who has been a strong opponent of the Yemen war) don’t mention Yemen much, and it receives little public attention. I’m writing about it partly because I was able to slip through the Saudi blockade into Yemen late last year, and I’m haunted by seeing my tax dollars go to help starve children to death.

Congress passed a bipartisan measure to end U.S. involvement in the war, but Trump vetoed it last month. A recent U.N. study calculated that if the war ends this year, it will have claimed 233,000 lives, and that if it continues until 2022, it will claim a total of 482,000 lives. If it lasts until 2030, the U.N. estimated, it will cause 1.8 million deaths.

“Every day things get worse,” Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, told me this month. “There isn’t anyone working today in Yemen who doesn’t believe that the only solution to this terrible, senseless crisis is to end the conflict. We have to face the fact that if fighting drags on, Yemen will be a failed state, unstable for generations.”

“Nearly every family has either lost someone, is hungry, has children out of school or is battling cholera,” Grande said. “It’s hard to understand why the lives of so many innocent people seem to mean so little.”

The Mad Prince’s rash interference in Yemen not only backfired and helped Iran, but a CNN investigation also found that it led Saudi Arabia to give American weapons to fighters linked to Al Qaeda. The chaos led to the cholera outbreak, which worsened recently, with more than 300,000 suspected cases so far in 2019.

Iran and the Houthis have also behaved badly, but that’s a poor excuse for Americans to support war crimes against Yemeni children.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are no longer enthusiastic about the Yemen war, but they don’t want to leave and give Iran and the Houthis a victory. So it’s difficult to see how the war ends unless the U.S. forces the issue.

Trump has said that if the United States doesn’t sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, then Russia or China will. But Saudi Arabia needs American spare parts, and it also buys U.S. weapons partly for the implicit security guarantee that comes with them. No other country can provide that security blanket.

“The Saudi military is dependent on American spare parts, logistics and munitions,” noted Bruce Riedel, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution. “If Washington uses its enormous leverage, the Saudis have no choice but to end the war.”

We are drifting toward an increased risk of a collision with Iran, and the U.S. Navy in particular worries about an accident in the Persian Gulf that escalates. In 1988, in a similar period of tensions, the United States mistakenly shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing 290 people on board.

So of course let’s work to reduce the risk of a war directly with Iran. But let’s also not forget this old, shameful war outside Iran’s borders: It’s time to end American support for the bombing and starvation of children in Yemen.

Nicholas Kristof has been a columnist for The Times since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur.