As Millions Face Starvation, American-Made Bombs Are Killing Civilians

The ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen is incredibly difficult to cover on the ground, with many obstacles for journalists hoping to access the capital Sana’a and other areas affected by the US-backed, Saudi-led coalition bombings. We speak with a reporter who smuggled herself into northern Yemen to report on the widespread famine and devastation there in an exclusive three-part series for “PBS NewsHour.” Special correspondent Jane Ferguson is a Beirut-based special correspondent. Her pieces are titled “Yemen’s spiraling hunger crisis is a man-made disaster,” “American-made bombs in Yemen are killing civilians, destroying infrastructure and fueling anger at the US” and “Houthis deny US, Saudi claim that they are Iran’s puppets.”

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We spend the rest of the hour in Yemen, where Houthi rebels say they’re prepared to hand over the crucial port of Hodeidah to the United Nations, if US-backed, Saudi-led coalition halt military operations there. Last month, tens of thousands of civilians fled the city when coalition forces launched an all-out offensive there. The UN warned the offensive would severely exacerbate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which is already experiencing the world’s worst cholera epidemic, with more than a million people afflicted, and with millions more on the brink of famine. This is UN humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande.

LISE GRANDE: Most of the eight-and-a-half million people that we describe as being pre-famine, the reality of their life is that when they wake up in the morning, they have no idea if they will eat that day. No idea. Eight-and-a-half million people are in that category. The UN estimates that by the end of the year, if there is not an end to this war, another 10 million Yemenis will be in that same situation. That’s 18 million innocent civilians who are the victims of this war. And that’s why all humanitarians are saying, “Enough is enough. There has to be a political solution, and the parties to the conflict have to sit at that table and agree on how to stop this.”

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s a clip from PBS NewsHour’s exclusive three-part series by correspondent Jane Ferguson, who recently smuggled herself into northern Yemen to report on the widespread famine and devastation there.

JANE FERGUSON: The only way into rebel-held Yemen is to smuggle yourself in. And for me, that means to be dressed entirely as a Yemeni woman, with a full face veil, just to get through the checkpoints. I traveled across the embattled front lines to see what’s actually happening inside what the United Nations is calling the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll speak with PBS correspondent Jane Ferguson, now in Beirut, about what she saw in Yemen. But first we’re going to her report. It was part two of her three-part exclusive PBS series. This piece is called “American-made bombs in Yemen are killing civilians, destroying infrastructure and fueling anger at the US”

JANE FERGUSON: Inside rebel territory in Yemen, the war rains down from the sky. On the ground, front lines have not moved much in the past three years of conflict. Instead, an aerial bombing campaign by the Saudi-led and American-backed coalition hammers much of the country’s north, leaving scenes like this dotted across the capital city, Sana’a, and beyond. A few weeks before I arrived, this gas station was hit. Security guard Abdul Al Badwi was in a building next door when it happened. He says six civilians were killed.

Why did they target here?

Can’t explain why they would have targeted something like this.

Elsewhere in the city, a government office building was recently hit. Another pile of rubble, another monument to the civilian deaths of this war.

When this building was hit, it was mostly clerical workers in offices who were injured. And you can still see their blood smeared all over the walls as they were evacuated after the airstrike.

In 2014, Yemeni rebels called Houthis seized the capital and much of the rest of the country. The Houthis are supported by Sunni Saudi Arabia’s archrival, Shiite Iran. So, the next year, the Saudis mobilized a coalition of Arab militaries to defeat the group. The aerial bombing campaign has not managed to dislodge the rebels, but has hit weddings, hospitals and homes.

The US military supports the Saudi coalition with logistics and intelligence. The United States also sells the Saudis and their coalition partners many of the bombs they drop on Yemen. In the mountains outside the capital, we gained exclusive access to the site where the Houthis store unexploded American-made bombs, like this 2,000-pound Mark 84 bomb made in Garland, Texas. It landed in the middle of the street in the capital, we are told. One of the men here told me where each was found around Sana’a.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: [translated] One month ago, it landed near the Shaharah Bridge, next to the central bank of Yemen. It didn’t explode.

JANE FERGUSON: He also showed me the fin of a Mark 82 bomb used to guide it to its target.

Back in the city, the Houthis also let us see a storage site with the remains of American-made cluster bombs. Cluster bombs are among the most deadly to civilians, filled with baseball-sized smaller bombs that scatter over a larger area. Any that don’t explode stay where they fell, primed, and often wounding civilians like land mines. The Houthis have also targeted civilians, throwing anyone suspected of opposing them in jail.

I traveled deep into Yemen’s countryside to find out more about how the bombing campaign is affecting peoples’ lives there. This is what I found: a Doctors Without Borders cholera treatment center completely destroyed by an airstrike the day before. It was just about to open its doors to patients. The war has made it harder for people to access clean running water, leading to the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. Now, every time the rains come, people fall ill.

Cholera is a seasonal disease here in Yemen, and that’s why the aid organizations are getting ready for the worst of the cholera season coming up. This facility was brand-new.

No one was killed here, but the loss of the precious medical facility, filled with life-saving equipment, is devastating.

LISE GRANDE: It’s quite clearly a contravention of humanitarian law. There is no question about that.

JANE FERGUSON: The United Nations warns the Saudi-led coalition on the location of thousands of humanitarian facilities across the country, requesting they don’t bomb them.

Lise Grande is the UN Development Program coordinator in Yemen.

LISE GRANDE: If you look at the total number of requests that we have in and the total number of violations, there have been few violations compared to the requests. But when those violations occur, they are serious indeed.

JANE FERGUSON: In a refugee camp closer to fighting along the Saudi border, people told me they were attacked by warplanes in the last camp they lived in. In 2015, Mazraq refugee camp was bombed by coalition jets. Radiyah Hussein lost a grandson in the attack and walked for days to get here.

RADIYAH HUSSEIN: [translated] They attacked the camp with three missiles in one day, and then we ran away.

JANE FERGUSON: On the road to the refugee camp, several bridges had been bombed. Anger towards America is growing in rebel-held areas of Yemen. Most people here, whether they support the Houthis or not, know that many of the bombs being dropped are American. It provides a strong propaganda tool for the Houthi rebels, who go by the slogan “Death to America.”

Dr. Ali Al Motaa is a college professor. He did his doctorate in the US, but is a strong Houthi supporter.

DR. ALI AL MOTAA: The missiles that kill us, American-made. The plane that kills us, American-made. The tanks, Abrams, American-made. You’re saying to me, “Where is America?” America is the whole thing.

JANE FERGUSON: Despite desperate efforts to end the fighting in Yemen, the violence is getting worse. The Saudi-led coalition launched an attack on Houthi-controlled Hodeidah city last month. The city is home to hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, and aid organizations warned that the attack could kill many civilians. As the bombs began to fall, these people fled to the capital, Sana’a.

DURA ISSA: [translated] My house is a traditional house. And when the bomb landed, the gate was blown off, and the roof was gone.

JANE FERGUSON: Dura Issa’s house was hit. Her family got out alive, but she is now homeless, trying to care for her severely disabled son.

DURA ISSA: [translated] I don’t know where to stay tonight. We don’t have money for a hotel. We cannot afford it. We left in a hurry, scared. We left everything.

JANE FERGUSON: Ahead of the battle, the coalition warned civilians to get out.

MOHAMMED ISSA: [translated] The coalition announced on the TV that we have to leave. They didn’t tell us anything. They just told us to go out. The Houthis made trenches. My house is next to the sea, and the battles are there.

JANE FERGUSON: Millions of Yemenis are just like him, living in fear of the battle raging near their homes, or an airstrike killing them and their families. Both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition have disregarded innocent civilian life in this war. Every bomb that falls on a hospital, office building or home causes more unease about where they came from.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jane Ferguson, reporting from Yemen for the PBSNewsHour. When we come back, we’ll go to Beirut, Lebanon — Jane has come out of Yemen, which she smuggled herself into — and speak directly with her. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Yemen Blues” by Yemen Blues. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re spending the rest of the hour in Yemen. We’re joined in Beirut by Jane Ferguson, special correspondent for PBS NewsHour.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane is just back from Yemen, where she spent nearly a month reporting this remarkable three-part series for PBS NewsHour on widespread starvation in Yemen, American financing of the Saudi-backed coalition there, and Houthi rebels. Her recent piece in The New Yorker is headlined “Is Intentional Starvation the Future of War?”

Jane, welcome to Democracy Now! I mean, the bravery of you even going into Yemen, which particularly shows what the Yemeni people face, explain how you got there. And then, this piece we just aired, where you talk about the US support for what’s happening, how you found this evidence?

JANE FERGUSON: Getting into Yemen itself is not as complicated, or not even close to as complicated, as getting into northern Yemen. Journalists from some outlets, including American outlets, have been granted visas and allowed to board flights into the south of Yemen. That’s the area that the Saudi-led coalition controls, and that’s into the capital of the south, which is Aden. And you can fly in there. And I was able to get a visa to get to Aden after a couple of attempts, and board a flight to Aden. And from there, as you would have seen in that report, I basically had to drive north. You can drive north across the front line. Yemenis themselves, civilians, are moving back and forth. But you have to go through dozens of checkpoints. I wasn’t able to film them, obviously, for the piece, as I was smuggling my way up. But it took sort of several cars and on various routes to be able to get up there, disguised as a Yemeni woman.

And, you know, once I got there, I had to work with a Yemeni team, because I could only really smuggle myself up. I couldn’t bring my cameraman and have him passed off as a believable Yemeni woman. So, I worked with a Yemeni team when I was in Sana’a, journalists and friends that I’ve known for some time. Now, it’s worth pointing out that news organizations all around the world, and particularly American news organizations, have been trying to access Sana’a, and they very much so want to report from Houthi-controlled areas, but journalists are banned. The Saudis control the airspace, and they ban journalists and human rights researchers from boarding the UN flights. Only UN flights land in Sana’a, in the capital, that is Houthi-controlled. And so, journalists, for a long time, from various news organizations, all the major networks in the US, have been trying to access those areas, but they’ve not been permitted to go. So, you know, it really is a case of whoever can smuggle their way up there. And that’s extremely challenging logistically, because then you end up with one staff member up there and not a support team.

So, when I was there, you know, as you’ve pointed out, a major focus on the reporting is the fact that this is a war that perhaps not so visually on the ground the United States is involved in, but behind the scenes the United States is supporting this war. They are supporting the Saudi-led coalition. And when the Saudi-led coalition formed in 2015, it was Barack Obama then president of the United States, obviously. He brought in support. He supported the coalition’s efforts, not with boots on the ground, but certainly with the logistics that was mentioned there. Some of those logistics include things like refueling Saudi jets. In between bombing raids, if they can be refueled midair by United States Air Force jets, that helps them, makes the process much more efficient. Also the sale of weapons, over $100 billion worth of US weapons agreed in sales to the Saudis, often agreed by Obama, but then confirmed by President Trump.

There’s also various logistical and intelligence support. And this is really where, you know, the Yemenis that I spoke to were coming from in terms of why they saw this as a United States war. And when I would put this question to them, even privately, off camera, to people who didn’t wish to speak on camera because they were not supporters of the Houthis or the coalition, they would say, you know, “We know, we feel very much so like this is a United States war.” And also when you’re on the ground there, like I said in my report, the Houthis are able to use this as a very strong propaganda tool, because they’re able to couch this war in terms of a jihad, a religious war, against not only foreign invaders like Saudis, but they will say, you know, whenever they’re trying to recruit fighters, that this is a war against foreign invaders who are fighting against Islam.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jane, one of the weapons that the US has sold to the Saudis, as you witnessed and discussed in your piece, are cluster bombs. Could you talk about what you learned about the effects of these bombs? I mean, this is a weapon that is banned by 102 countries. Explain what the effects of cluster bombs are.

JANE FERGUSON: Well, a cluster bomb, effectively, when it’s dropped, it explodes just before it hits the ground. And it can contain anything from dozens to up to hundreds of smaller bombs. They’re around about the size of a baseball, and they are just miniature bombs primed to explode. And they spread out over a wider area. They can be particularly deadly for civilians, especially in countries where people live in, you know, non-brick or non-concrete homes. So, areas where people live in mud homes or wattle homes, straw huts, they can be particularly dangerous in those situations. But they also are — they have a particularly poor fail rate, where, if they land, not all of the small munitions will explode, and so they will remain primed on the ground. And they can be picked up by a child. They can randomly explode much, much later. And that’s why cluster bombs are seen as such a deadly weapon, because they can act like mines, as well as an explosive that spreads itself out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Jane, your piece also ends with a remarkable and horrific statistic, that an estimated 130 Yemeni children died every day in 2017 from extreme hunger and disease. Now, you point out in this piece, as well as your piece in The New Yorker, that this is a man-made disaster, that there is, in fact, food in Yemen. It’s just that people no longer have the means to buy that food, because millions of workers have been put out of work or are simply not being paid. Can you talk about that?

JANE FERGUSON: Sure. This is the real toll of the war. Of course, civilians are dying in these airstrikes, but not in anywhere near to the numbers of people who are falling ill and dying from the humanitarian crisis that has been caused by this war. Of course, you know, you’ll hear the statistic, “Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian disaster,” but that’s really just a phrase. And it was — you know, one of the reasons I wanted to go into rebel-held Yemen was because no one really understands what that looks like. What does that mean to a viewer?

And what it means is a third of the country, an entire third, over 8 million people, on the brink of starvation, meaning they’re not getting enough nutrients. They cannot afford to buy enough food to feed themselves and their families sufficiently. And, you know, the statistics on the deaths of children are particularly startling, and that’s because, of course, as anywhere in the world, children are the most susceptible to falling ill from malnutrition. They can die of starvation. They can also, and more often is the case, die of infectious diseases, because their bodies have become so weak. And so, when I traveled to various hospitals and went to the children’s wards, which are very — pretty much now just malnutrition wards, you’ll see absolutely terrifyingly thin children. And you’ll see a small trickle of them every single day. A lot of parents can’t afford to bring their children to clinics or hospitals in rural capitals, because the cost of fuel has gone up, which means a bus ride will be more expensive.

And the reason that this is man-made, and the reason that every NGO and humanitarian organization has pointed out that this is man-made, is that it is caused by the war. There hasn’t been a weather pattern or a particular natural disaster. There is plenty of food getting into Yemen. Now, what is happening is that the food prices are higher than they should be. They’re higher than they were before. That’s partly because of the Saudi-led coalition’s blockade on the area. They’re allowing food in, but it’s restricted, and it’s a slow process, and it’s an expensive process, because the ships that import the food, they get held up for weeks at a time, they have to be inspected, and so that process is particularly difficult. Yemen imports the vast majority of its food. It has done since long before this war. So those prices going up have also been coupled with the fact that the economy, certainly in the north, but also really all over Yemen, is on its knees, if not has collapsed, essentially. You’ll see people have just lost their jobs, and so it doesn’t really matter how much food there is in the supermarket, and it doesn’t really matter how expensive it has become, because if you have absolutely no money, then you’re really — you’re not going to be able to buy it anyway. And that’s why Yemenis are hungry. They’re hungry because of the economic collapse. And the economic collapse is as a direct result of this war.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane Ferguson, I wanted to go back to your third exclusive piece for the PBS NewsHour on Yemen, where you report on the Houthi rebels. This is a clip from your series. This is Salim Moghalis, a member of the Houthis’ political wing, who told you they took the missiles from Yemen’s military arsenal when they captured the capital Sana’a.

SALIM MOGHALIS: [translated] The Yemeni people and army have missiles from the past. And the army and experts were able to improve and upgrade these missiles, which is necessary. We are able to produce all sorts of arms, so they can upgrade the old weapons to have longer ranges.

JANE FERGUSON: Beyond the politics, this war has created the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Millions are on the brink of starvation, and the worst cholera outbreak in modern history rages on.

After three years of war, people here are weary of the airstrikes and the blockade, but they also tell us they believe America could end it. In Sana’a’s market, people are hopeful for an end to the crisis soon.

ABU MOHAMMED: [translated] Since America has the biggest position in the UN, it should have pushed for political and economic resolutions to the conflict. Look, now the people are almost dead. Poverty, hunger, disease, death, injuries, and on top of all that, the warplanes are hitting us.

JANE FERGUSON: Meanwhile in Washington, efforts by some to end the US’s support for the Saudis continue.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Vote yes, vote no. Do not vote to table this resolution.

JANE FERGUSON: A bipartisan group of senators, including Vermont independent Bernie Sanders, failed to get a resolution passed in March which aimed to limit the White House’s authority to get involved in this war.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We think that, in fact, this war is unauthorized, and it is in fact unconstitutional. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution is pretty clear. It’s the United States Congress that declares war. The president cannot do what he wants unilaterally. The president does not have the authority.

JANE FERGUSON: President Trump enjoys warm relations with the Saudis, especially the country’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. The White House is currently pushing for further arms sales of precision-guided missiles to the kingdom. Some fellow Republicans argue the Saudis deserve America’s support in this war. Idaho Republican James Risch sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

SEN. JAMES RISCH: The Iranians are in there, and they are causing the difficulty that’s there. If the Iranians would back off, I have no doubt that the Saudis will back off. But the Saudis have the absolute right to defend themselves.

JANE FERGUSON: To others, it’s not America’s job to defend a nation that doesn’t reflect its values.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: I don’t know that I have ever participated in a vote which says that the United States must be an ally to Saudis’ militaristic ambitions. You know, this is a despotic regime, which treats women as third-class citizens. There are no elections there. They have their own goals and their own ambitions.

JANE FERGUSON: American support for Saudi Arabia is a major propaganda tool for the Houthis, who frame their war here as a form of jihad against the US, a religious battle. But it’s a battle that neither side is winning, regardless of who America helps. Instead, the conflict is defined most clearly by those who are losing — the civilians — struggling to live with its consequences. For the PBSNewsHour, I’m Jane Ferguson in Sana’a, Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jane Ferguson is with us right now, back in Beirut, special correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. The power of what you’re saying there, that the people who are losing right now is what counts, the massive hunger, the cholera epidemic. Jane, the fact that journalists rarely go to the north, the way you smuggled yourself in, with the Saudis not allowing that, because you see the effects of their bombing, and you see the actual bombs, and you make that connection to the US. Your final comment, in the minute that we have?

JANE FERGUSON: I would point out that, exactly as you say, this is a war which has had a terrible toll on the people of Yemen. And that’s a toll that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Nowhere in the world has a statistic like one-third of an entire country’s population is on the brink of starvation. There are attempts going on right now to broker more serious peace talks, and there is a way to end this war, if all sides negotiate in good faith and are truly willing to make the compromises necessary. And so it is possible that Yemen could see peace before the end of the year, if there is enough political will there.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Jane Ferguson, speaking to us from Beirut, Lebanon, just returned from Yemen, where she did this remarkable three-part series for the PBS NewsHour. To see the three-part series, you can watch it at pbs.org/newshour.

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