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Yemenis ‘struggling to live day to day’ at third anniversary of conflict with Saudi Arabia

In Yemen, what started out as a civil war has escalated into a regional power struggle, with a devastating humanitarian crisis affecting many millions. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with journalist Iona Clark, who has reported on and lived in Yemen for years, about the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, U.S. involvement in the war, and her experience as a journalist on the front lines.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We reported earlier on last night's missile launch by Houthi rebels in Yemen that targeted the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The attack coincided with today's third bloody anniversary of Saudi Arabia's involvement in Yemen's civil war.

    Hari Sreenivasan recently spoke with a journalist who has reported for years on Yemen, its many conflicts, and the people caught in between.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Thousands of civilians have died and more than three million have been displaced in the war between a U.S.-backed Saudi coalition and Houthi rebels.

    Yemen was also the scene of the first commando raid directly ordered by President Trump. That 2017 raid ended in the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL and Yemeni civilians.

    Iona Craig is a freelance journalist who has just won a Polk Award for her investigation of this raid. She has deep experience reporting in Yemen.

    Thanks for joining us.

    First, tell us, you have lived there for five years. You have been on multiple reporting trips. How has Yemen changed in the country that you first started reporting in and now through the civil war?

  • Iona Craig:

    It's actually a really very depressing place to go back to now.

    And I have got a lot of friends that have been immediately affected by both the conflict and the humanitarian crisis. And Yemenis are very resilient. That is something I found from the beginning of my time there. But that resilience has been worn down now gradually. Every time I go back, I see more and more people just really struggling to live day to day.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Some of those struggle numbers that we hear about, 22.2 million Yemenis that need humanitarian assistance, 1.8 million children under the age of 5 that are acutely malnourished, more than a million cases of cholera, at least 10,000 civilians killed.

    What does that do to a society, an economy? How do people function?

  • Iona Craig:

    Whether it's in the north, where Houthi rebels now control Sanaa, or if it's in the territory controlled by the Saudi-led coalition in this conflict, the children on both sides are suffering.

    And to sit and speak to women as their children are literally dying of starvation in their arms is really, really not only tragic, but hard to get your kind of head around, and to see that repeatedly in the hundreds of thousands going across the country, and to see people just so helpless, not able to get to medical care because they can't afford it, not even being able to buy the food that is there and available in the markets because they haven't got the money to do so.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    We have heard recently about the difficulty of trying to get humanitarian aid in there, but I think it's also important to clarify the role that the West, the U.S. and the U.K., are playing in this fight, though not directly.

  • Iona Craig:


    Well, the U.S.' main involvement in supporting the Saudi-led coalition in this is helping them, assisting them, really, in the air war.

    And, certainly, according to U.N. figures, the majority of the casualties in the conflict have been caused by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes. And the U.S. involvement in that is, they're doing midair refueling. So they're refueling the fighter jets that are carrying out these bombing raids and bombing runs particularly in Northern Yemen now and through the center of the country, as well as providing intelligence and targeting assistance, of course.

    And that's really crucial, because much of the civilian infrastructure has been hit, in addition to the high number of civilian casualties. So water supply lines, for example, hospitals have been hit, schools have been hit, farms have been targeted, and that all comes with the U.S. involvement.

    And in addition to that, the fishermen on the Red Sea coast have also been targeted. More than 250 boats of fishermen have been either destroyed or damaged, and more than 152 fishermen have been killed as well.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Saudis are going to say, listen, this is the Houthis' fault. Anybody in a war will say it's the other person's fault. They're saying at least 100 rockets have been launched inside the kingdom, that we are primarily trying to defend ourselves.

    What is Mohammed bin Salman, the new crown prince's stake in this? Just recently, he fired a bunch of his — chief of staff of all of his army and taking over. Is this a fairly crucial part of Saudi foreign policy?

  • Iona Craig:

    It became so.

    Before he was crown prince, he was also the minister of defense, when this war started. So he really led this war and the Saudi involvement in it. But, of course, their reason for becoming involved in the first place is because they have seen the Houthis as a proxy for Iran, which is very much a sort of state of paranoia, if you like, of the Saudis.

    There is political alignment between Houthis and Iran. And it has in some way become self-fulfilling. There has been some Iranian involvement in certainly doing small amounts of training of Houthi fighters, but it's not of the scale you will see in Syria and elsewhere in the region.

    And it's certainly not at the level of being — of the Houthis being a proxy for Iran or answering to Iran.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Going back to that raid in early 2017, the White House called it highly successful. The military commanders came out and said that they gathered lots of important intelligence.

    You were really the only reporter that was actually able to go to these villages and verify what had happened on the ground. That really changed our understanding of the entire situation. And that's what the Polk Award was for.

    But tell us what — kind of update that story. What's happened since then?

  • Iona Craig:

    Well, the area of Al Bayda, which is the name of the government or the governorate or the province where it happened, has been repeatedly targeted since then.

    This is an area that is right on the front lines of where the tribesmen are fighting against the Houthis and where there has been an al-Qaida presence, who have been fighting on the side of the Saudi-led coalition that the U.S. is supporting.

    So, really, for the people in that area, the story didn't end when I left that village and did that story. It's really continued. And I have kept in contact with them actually quite regularly.

    Many of those families were displaced from that area. Because of the repeated airstrikes, they couldn't go back to their homes. Many of them were living in tents on the side of the mountain for many months because of the risk of being killed in their own homes after that raid.

    And so Al Bayda has been really sort of really at the heart of a lot of the U.S. airstrikes that have been carried out, drone strikes as well over the last year, over a year now, in the first year of the Trump administration. That has been one area that they have specifically targeted repeatedly.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Iona Craig, thank so much for your reporting.

    And thanks for joining us.

  • Iona Craig:

    Thanks so much for having me.

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