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Yemen on brink of catastrophic famine orchestrated by Saudis

In addition to thousands of civilians in Yemen who have already died in a war between a Saudi-led coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels, less documented war tactics may also push the poorest Arab country into a catastrophic famine. Declan Walsh wrote in an interactive essay for The New York Times that the insidious warfare is waging a far greater human toll. Walsh joins Hari Sreenivasan.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    For the past three years, a Saudi-led coalition has bombed and battled Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who control Yemen's major cities. Yemen shares a border with Saudi Arabia and the Saudis receive military equipment bombs and intelligence from the United States and the United Kingdom. The war is at a stalemate but the consequences are a catastrophe for civilians. This week, New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks and reporter Declan Walsh documented the threat of a massive famine in their interactive essay "The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia's War," which included photos you may find disturbing.

    Declan Walsh joins us now via Skype from Cairo. You're talking about an economic or an income famine — one that is preventable. You use one of the characters, Mr. Hijaji here to help tell the story. Tell us.

  • DECLAN WALSH:

    We met Mr. Hijaji standing over the bed of his 3 -year-old son who was very seriously ill and his first son had actually died just three weeks earlier. The collapse of the economy really pushed people like Ali Hijaji over the edge.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Encapsulate why this war is taking place in the first place.

  • DECLAN WALSH:

    So the war started about four years ago, when this group called the Houthis seized control of the capital Sana'a in late 2014. That was a very alarming development for neighboring Saudi Arabia, which viewed Houthi's activity as a proxy for Iran. And from March 2015, you had the then defense minister of Saudi Arabia who sent Saudi warplanes to start bombing Houthi detect targets. And that was the starting gun for the war.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You know, when you talk about these airstrikes, there is such significant damage to the infrastructure. That means that goods and services can't go back across that road including food.

  • DECLAN WALSH:

    That's right. So one of the great impacts of the airstrike campaign actually, the greatest destruction, is the way that it is destroying the economy of Yemen. Millions and millions of Yemenis unable to buy even basic foodstuffs for themselves.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You point out that the Yemeni government bank is in almost control by the Saudis.

  • DECLAN WALSH:

    Yeah, this was one of the most significant actions of the Saudi-led coalition over the past couple of years. They stopped paying the salaries of about 1 million civil servants. That means you potentially have 7 million people who were affected by that decision, who live in families who no longer have an income.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Finally, I want to ask what the considerations that The Times took. These are extraordinarily graphic images, these are not things that you often see in a newspaper.

  • DECLAN WALSH:

    The Times took that decision very carefully. The paper felt that in this instance these images remind you that famine has not gone away and that in some instances like now, famine can be not a product of natural causes, not a natural disaster, it's a manmade catastrophe.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Declan Walsh of The New York Times joining us via Skype from Cairo. Thanks so much.

  • DECLAN WALSH:

    Thank you.

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