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In Yemen’s brutal ongoing war, ‘the weakest no longer survive’

What began as a civil war in 2015 between Yemen’s government and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has evolved into a brutal proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with U.S. involvement. Jane Ferguson updates us from Yemen on the war's terrible toll, and Nick Schifrin speaks with the Biden administration's envoy about the world's largest humanitarian crisis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now two looks at the world's largest humanitarian crisis, the war in Yemen.

    What began as civil war in 2015 between the government and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels has evolved into a brutal proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with U.S. involvement.

    In a moment, Nick Schifrin speaks with the Biden administration's envoy there.

    But, first, special correspondent Jane Ferguson updates us on the war's terrible toll. She begins in Sanaa, Yemen's capital.

  • And a warning:

    Images in her report will upset some viewers.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    In Sanaa's hospitals, the children's wards offer a glimpse into the suffering of millions, a country so hungry, the weakest no longer survive, like Asaad Hasaan, 9 months old, but fading away. He's the most recent member of his family, but may be the next to leave it.

    And many others, like 13-year-old Murad, caught in a cycle of malnutrition and sickness that grips children and makes recovery near impossible. His father has nowhere else to turn.

  • Mohammed Ali Okab (through translator):

    My son suffers from malnutrition, and now he is also sick. He has been like this for three months, and he cannot walk. I brought him to this hospital, but still have to buy the medicine from outside.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The hospitals here constantly run out of medication. For each starving child, there are an untold number famishing silently, in a home somewhere hidden from view, unable to afford a journey to the hospital. Even the staff here can't make a living.

  • Dr. Hasan Al Sharif (through translator):

    The situation is getting worse. We are receiving many cases from all over the country. The doctors and nurses here, we work without salaries and can barely pay for the bus to come to the hospital.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The war in Yemen has caused a manmade famine. Three-quarters of the country's population of 29 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, and the United Nations says the most vulnerable 400,000 children have begun to die.

    American support for the war began under President Obama, and was ramped up by President Trump. Now the new Biden administration has ended American military support, in line with what it calls a recalibration of the U.S.'s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

    But that won't be enough to stop this famine. The U.N.'s World Food Program head, David Beasley, visited Yemen last week, touring hospitals and talking to key players.

  • David Beasley:

    I said: "Doctor, I said doctor how many beds do you have?"

  • He says:

    "Twenty-five."

    I said: "Twenty-five?" I said: "What do you do if you don't have enough beds?"

    And she said: "I send them home."

    I said: "Well, that happens?"

    She said: "Most of them die."

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The technical classification for famine, as calculated by the U.N., has been met for tens of thousands of Yemenis. It's called the integrated food security phase classification, or IPC, for short.

    The group of people just underneath famine classification is so vast, it encompasses millions. That has never been seen on this scale before in modern times.

  • David Beasley:

    Well, actually, when famine hits, it's almost too late.

    And, supposedly, we have got about 50,000 or 60,000 people in famine conditions. But IPC — that would be level five. IPC level four, and that is emergency level, which means they are knocking on the door, that doesn't mean people aren't already dying.

    That just means it hasn't reached a classification high enough to qualify for famine. But people are dying as we speak.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The blockade on rebel held areas has made it difficult to access fuel. The gas is nearby on ships in the waters off the main port controlled by the rebels, but it's being blocked by the Saudi-led coalition from coming in to dock and off-load.

  • David Beasley:

    I can understand, in war, you have certain types of blockades, but there are certain things that must come through that allow innocent victims of war to survive.

    And so here we are again now with this fuel blockade, allowing just enough fuel to allow certain parts of the humanitarian system, but it's not enough.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The U.N. says it needs $4 billion to keep feeding the people of Yemen. In a summit last week, international donors pledged less than half of that.

    David Miliband heads the International Rescue Committee.

  • David Miliband:

    The lesson of COVID is that money isn't short if you decide it's needed, because countries around the world have delivered trillions of dollars in support for their domestic economies, quite rightly. We are talking here about billions of dollars which are needed to prevent people from dying.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The Biden administration has appointed a new U.S. envoy for the peace process, Timothy Lenderking. And there are efforts to get all sides to negotiate.

    Yet, in the meantime, paradoxically, fighting has ramped up. An offensive by the Houthis to take the eastern city of Marib has intensified in recent weeks, and Houthi drones sent into Saudi Arabia resulted in Saudi airstrikes on the rebel-held capital last week.

  • Elana Delozier:

    Everyone claims that the war can't be won militarily, but it sure seems as though the Houthis think it can.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Elana DeLozier is a fellow at the Washington Institute and an expert on Yemen and it's fighting factions. The road to peace, she says, will be complicated by the fractured reality of the fighting groups on the ground

  • Elana Delozier:

    I think what they are — most of them are doing is saying, OK, my enemy did this yesterday, I'm going to do this today, in order to position themselves best in the future.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    As for the Saudis, it will be very tough for them to get out of their six-year quagmire in Yemen without further destabilizing their own long border with the country.

  • Elana Delozier:

    In some ways, the war has become a defensive war. I'm not saying it's not still also offensive, but I'm just saying that there is more of a defensive element to it, since the Houthis have been able to send missiles into Riyadh.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    For the 29 million Yemenis left stuck in this war, diplomatic efforts to end it hold their greatest hope. A vital part of that will be getting the economic hardships eased, and also, getting the world's attention long enough to care.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we are now joined by Tim Lenderking, the new U.S. special envoy to Yemen.

    Tim Lenderking, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's start with the humanitarian crisis and look at that blockade that we just heard from, from Jane and David Beasley.

    The Houthis have said the lifting of the Saudi blockade is a precondition to peace. Have you pushed the Saudis to lift the blockade? And does it need to be lifted in order to have diplomatic progress?

  • Timothy Lenderking:

    We do think that moving the fuel ships into Hodeidah is a critical priority for Yemen.

    We have seen the incredible images of hospitals and other areas where the lack of fuel is hurting Yemenis. I have been in touch with the Saudis and the Yemeni government just over the weekend, of course, in a renewed push to see this all happen.

    I'm optimistic that we will see some movement here in the near term. And I think that is very important also as a — sort of as a confidence building-measure.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Friday, you and USAID announced the Biden administration had reversed the Trump administration decision and you will now be allowing aid to go into Northern Yemen, to Houthi-controlled Yemen.

    The Houthis have diverted aid in the past. How will you guarantee that the aid is not diverted?

  • Timothy Lenderking:

    This is a critical priority as well, not only getting supplies into the country, but then moving them to the people in the greatest need.

    I'm relatively confident that, with some of the measures that we have in place, we will be able to get more supplies into North Yemen and into other parts of the country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Houthis have been presented a new cease-fire proposal. How, if at all, does that cease-fire proposal differ from previous attempts?

  • Timothy Lenderking:

    It's a U.N. proposal.

    And I'm hopeful that all the parties will recognize that this is a critical moment, that if we want to see a better situation in Yemen, we want to see a move toward a cease-fire that is a lasting cease-fire, a durable cease-fire, and not just one that is broken by one side or the other after 24 hours, that it's going to require international buy-in.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Have the Houthis expressed any interest?

  • Timothy Lenderking:

    There is a tough road ahead.

    But I think that the discussions are underway. And we feel that they are productive. There is a sense that this is a moment at which progress can be made.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    From the outside, it seems that that momentum is negative.

    There have been 30 attacks by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia this month alone. The Houthis have launched a major offensive in Marib. It's one of the remaining strongholds in the north of the Yemeni government.

    Saudis just attacked Sanaa for the first time in six months. It does seem, again, from the outside that things are going in the wrong direction.

  • Timothy Lenderking:

    Certainly, the situation, Nick, on the ground is very negative. It is going to be incumbent upon the parties, I think, to start to de-escalate.

    The question is whether we can bring enough influence on that situation to do that. But, again, what I do think is important is that nothing has been agreed to yet. And so I wouldn't anticipate seeing improvements on the ground until there is an agreement, unfortunately.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You have been in and out of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, over the past few month, as the Biden administration decided to make public an intelligence assessment that said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the capture/kill order for journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

    Have the Saudis changed how they interacted with you because of that release?

  • Timothy Lenderking:

    They have not.

    And, of course, that's not part of my particular mandate. I focus really exclusively on Yemen. And what I have found in Saudi Arabia is a strong commitment from the Saudi leadership to approach the conflict in a way that is constructive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you think, by not sanctioning Mohammed bin Salman over the Khashoggi killing, does that give you the ability to continue to work to Saudi Arabia, and perhaps even have a little bit of leverage over what Saudi Arabia does when it comes to Yemen?

  • Timothy Lenderking:

    I think Saudi Arabia has viewed this conflict as something that has gone on too long.

    And what I hear is a consistent message from the Saudi leadership that they want to do their part to bring the conflict to a close. And, as we go further in this process, we — obviously, the devil will be in the details, but I'm confident that we're going to be able to count on Saudi Arabia to do its part.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tim Lenderking, thank you very much.

  • Timothy Lenderking:

    Thank you, Nick.

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