Yemen is in ‘complete meltdown’ and civilians are paying the price

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we turn to the grinding civil war in Yemen, which has also become a proxy conflict between neighboring Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A two-and-a-half-year bombing campaign has killed thousands. Vast swathes of the country lie devastated. Compounding the horror, Yemen is on the brink of famine. There are critical shortages of aid and medical care, and now an outbreak of cholera is spreading.

The country has been essentially closed to journalists for months, but filmmaker Martin Smith and his team from Frontline were able to gain access to Yemen in May.

Frontline has a short film on its website documenting what they saw.

Here is an excerpt, beginning in the capital, Sanaa.

MARTIN SMITH: It's not just the jets you hear overhead, or the buildings that are bombed, or the airport that's demolished. It's the knock-on effects of the war on infrastructure.

When we came into town, what struck me right away was the amount of garbage on the streets. The garbage workers hadn't been paid in eight months. The rains came, washing through the garbage, bacteria carried into the water supply, people drinking bad water. And they were hit by a cholera epidemic.

Cholera simply dehydrates you quickly, so that anything you ingest, any water you drink or food you eat just completely passes through your system, and you get no nutrients out of it.

WOMAN: She is very tired because of the exhaustion from the electrolyte imbalance that she has. She can't control herself now until she gets enough fluid.

MARTIN SMITH: The World Health Organization is saying that there are over 300,000 cases of cholera; 1,600 people have died, many of them children.

And the numbers keep going up. The hospital we visited, they were already beyond capacity. The nurses and doctors were suffering from a lack of medicines and equipment. And they were there working, in spite the fact that they hadn't been paid.

WOMAN: We don't get salary. Last salary I got was in September only.

If I will not work, then they will die. And maybe tomorrow, I will be sick, and nobody will see me because of no salary.

MARTIN SMITH: People often ask why the Saudis are bombing Yemen. It's a question for the Saudis. They will tell you they're fighting against the rebel group that's trying to take over the country, who are backed by their archrival, Iran.

Yet, in the time I was there, it was hard to see really what the Iranians were doing. But the impact of the Saudi-led coalition bombing was very clear. Parts of the country have been isolated of bomb strikes on bridges. People on the ground in Yemen are suffering. They're caught in the crossfire of this war.

In Hajjah, we went to a hospital. And I met a nurse there who showed me pictures she'd taken a day or two before of a young boy who came in severely malnourished, and died.

WOMAN (through interpreter): Of course one gets very upset. All of us here do. We do our job, and we love the child. And, in the end, they pass away. It's hard.

MARTIN SMITH: She then was called away to go take care of a new severe malnutrition patient. A mother came in with her child. It was a little girl named Aline, a seventh-month-old baby.

WOMAN (through interpreter): For sure, it's a consequence of the war. The war is behind the malnourishment. And it is only getting worse. The cases have increased. There is a food shortage.

How are your living conditions at home?

WOMAN (through interpreter): Terrible.

MARTIN SMITH: There were always malnutrition cases in Yemen, but the nurse told us that the number of cases had more than doubled since the war.

And maybe an hour later, another mother came in with her daughter. Ruqayah her name. It was a 5-year-old girl. Ruqayah had come from an IDP, an internally displaced persons camp. And it's quite a ways away up near the Saudi border, traveled several hours, because the hospital up near her had been bombed.

WOMAN (through interpreter): As a result of these catastrophes, they don't have the means to travel from their areas, which are usually very far from ours. So they wait.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was an excerpt of "Inside Yemen," a Frontline short film by Martin Smith.

For more on the conflict and the people caught in between, we're joined from New York by David Miliband. He is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, a global aid agency, and he served as foreign secretary of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010.

David Miliband, welcome back to the NewsHour.

That was a horrific film we have just seen an excerpt of. Tell us more about just how bad things are right now in Yemen.

DAVID MILIBAND, CEO, International Rescue Committee: Well, I think horrific is the right word for the tragedy that's unfolding in Yemen.

It is the modern face of humanitarian catastrophe, because Yemen represents a political emergency, as well as a humanitarian emergency. Yemen is one of four countries threatened by famine at the moment. And the numbers in Yemen are absolutely staggering, 20 million people in humanitarian need, over 300,000 diagnosed with cholera already.

And our teams on the ground — the International Rescue Committee has 150 or 200 staff on the ground in Yemen — and what they report is direct danger to civilians from bombing as part of the war that's going on, and indirect danger from the consequences of war that are impeding access to — of humanitarian workers and have destroyed about half of the hospitals in the country.

So it really is complete meltdown in Yemen at the moment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, if I were to ask you what are people — what are the main needs that people have, it sounds as if you're saying everything.

DAVID MILIBAND: Yes, it is everything, but I think one can be specific, first of all, that the war needs to be conducted within the confines of international humanitarian law.

International humanitarian law, which defends civilians from attack, needs to be observed. Secondly, the bombing of hospitals needs to be arrested and stopped. Thirdly, access for humanitarian aide workers needs to be supported, rather than impeded.

There's a threat to the main port in Yemen, the Hodeidah port. There's a threat to bomb that port. In fact, it needs stronger U.N. presence there to ensure that food is able to enter the country, because, obviously, the agriculture has been completely ruined over the last few years of war.

And, fourthly, and critically, there needs to be support from the whole international diplomatic and political, as well as humanitarian community for some kind of political settlement that can put ahold to the fighting.

Nearly two years ago at the United Nations, I attended a meeting of foreign nations of Gulf countries who said they were committed to finding a political settlement, but, frankly, it's no nearer now than it was then. And civilians in Yemen are paying the price.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why has it gotten to this point? You describe a situation that, by stages, has gotten to a point, as you're describing, it's going to be very difficult to put this back together again.

DAVID MILIBAND: You're absolutely right.

I mean, there are two main reasons, I think. First of all, the war itself has seen a significant upping of the ante, first of all, by the Saudi-led coalition, the U.S. supporting that, then the Iranians getting involved, then retaliation against the Iranian involvement.

And so you see an escalation upon escalation, neither side willing to compromise, for fear of losing face. The second thing that's been happening is that the humanitarian tragedy and the failure to protect civilians and deliver humanitarian aid has, I'm afraid, fueled the political emergency. It's provided fuel for radicalism. It's entrenched both sides.

The bloodletting has meant that both the Houthi rebels and the government who have the support of the Saudis and the American side have got further and further apart. A million refugees have left the country, including some fleeing to Somalia. You have got a situation where Somalia is safer for them than Yemen.

And those are the two main reasons. There is one other thing, just to further enlighten your audience. Yemen is a country that is suffering terribly from climate change. Sanaa is predicted to be the first capital city in the world to run out of water.

So you have got chronic long-term problems and acute problems in the short term as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A number of guilty parties you're talking about, including the United States.

What, politically, can be done? I mean, you said a moment ago, David Miliband, this is even more a political crisis than a humanitarian, as bad as it is on a humanitarian level. What has to be done?

DAVID MILIBAND: I think the diplomatic and political muscle needs to be applied to ensure that there is a cease-fire, that that then is built on with a proper negotiated settlement, because the truth is that the current trajectory of the war is in the interests of neither side. No one is winning. But the civilians of Yemen are losing very big time.

I'm pleased to say that there are some senators speaking up on this. I was in Washington on Monday. And there is growing concern, I think, in the Senate to call on the U.S. administration to persuade the Saudis to call a halt to this bombing campaign, which, as I say, is fueling the insurgency, rather than curbing it, and to give time for humanitarian aid to get in.

I mean, it tells you something that we in the humanitarian sector are desperately calling on there to be no bombing of the main port through which 90 percent of the food gets into Yemen.

And Yemen is one of four countries that are threatened by famine. And a unique coalition of eight American-led NGOs have come together to form a global emergency response coalition to call on the American public to support us in trying to staunch the bloodshed, to staunch the humanitarian suffering, even while the war going on.

But it's for the diplomats and the politicians to try and bring the war to an end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What's at stake if that doesn't happen?

DAVID MILIBAND: Suffering and further fuel for the insurgency. This is a downward spiral to hell that really needs to be arrested.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Miliband of the International Rescue Committee, thank you very much.

DAVID MILIBAND: Thank you very much.

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