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Yemen’s spiraling hunger crisis is a man-made disaster

One of the poorest countries in the Middle East, Yemen's war has pushed it to the brink of famine. A Saudi blockade has slowed the flow of food and helped push prices up. Markets and businesses are ruined from airstrikes. Millions are destitute. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson smuggled herself across front lines to report on what's happening inside the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The "NewsHour" has reported from Yemen many times over the years, but access to the territory held by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels is rare and dangerous.

    That's why we take note of the series of reports we begin tonight originating from that region.

    First, a word of warning. Images in this story may disturb some viewers, but they are necessary to show what is happening in one of the world's most desperate places, trapped in a brutal war that the United States is supporting through a Saudi-led coalition.

    Special correspondent Jane Ferguson has just returned from rebel-held Yemen, and tonight brings us the first of three reports from behind rebel lines.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Life is slipping away from Maimona Shaghadar. She suffers the agony of starvation in silence. No longer able to walk or talk, at 11 years old, little Maimona's emaciated body weighs just 24 pounds.

    Watching over her is older brother Najib, who brought her to this remote hospital in Yemen, desperate to get help. The nurses here fight for the lives of children who are starving.

  • Mariam Al-Fakih (through translator):

    Because of the war, she is suffering from malnutrition. Her father is jobless. Most of the families in Yemen are jobless.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Every day, she says she sees these sorts of cases. People have lost work. Therefore, they have no money. Therefore, there's just no food in the house.

    You were never supposed to see these images of Maimona. A blockade of rebel-held Northern Yemen stops reporters from getting here. Journalists are not allowed on flights into the area. No cameras, no pictures.

    The only way into rebel-held Yemen is to smuggle yourself in. And for me, that means being 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.

    The Houthis cautiously welcomed me in and, once I was there, watched me closely.

    The hunger here and this human catastrophe is entirely manmade. Yemen was already one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, and the war has pushed an already needy people to the brink of famine.

    In the midst of political chaos in Yemen after the Arab Spring, Houthi rebels from the north captured the capital, Sanaa, in 2014, before sweeping south and causing the country's then president to flee. Neighboring Sunni, Saudi Arabia, views the Houthis, from a Yemeni sect close to Shia Islam and backed by rival Iran, as an unacceptable threat along their border.

    So it formed a military coalition of countries in 2015, determined to defeat the Houthis and reinstate the old president. Crucial military support for the campaign is provided by the United States, a longtime ally of Saudi Arabia.

    After three years of aerial bombardment and fighting on the ground, the coalition has so far failed to dislodge the rebels. What the campaign has done is devastate the economy, leaving two-thirds of the population relying on food aid for survival, and over eight million people on the brink of starvation.

    I traveled across this country to see for myself what that looks like. Since ancient times, Yemenis have lived securely in villages perched high up on mountaintops. But now they can't hold off the hunger, like in Rafeah village.

    Because most of the people in these areas are so desperately poor, they cannot afford to transport their children into the towns to the hospitals whenever their malnutrition gets so bad their lives are in danger. And so many of the worst cases are in small villages scattered all around these mountain ranges just like this.

    Hannah and her little brother Ali are frighteningly thin. Their grandma tells me food prices shot up beyond their reach when the fighting started.

  • Dhabia Kharfoush (through translator):

    One month after the war started, we were starving. We are dying from hunger, and we don't know what to do.

    Their dad, Ahmed, picks up occasional work whenever it's available. But most of the time, all he can afford to give them is a smile. Nearby sits Gebran, so frail, he can no longer walk. The Saudi-led coalition imposes a blockade on rebel-held Yemen because, they say, Houthi rebels are bringing in weapons from Iran.

    All food coming into the country must get approval from Saudi Arabia. That process is frustratingly slow and has helped push food prices up.

    Yahya Al-Habbari is one of Yemen's main importers of wheat. He says Saudi inspections in nearby ports hold everything up.

  • Yahya Al-Habbari:

    All our wheat shipments, with each shipment worth about $16 million to $18 million dollars, it stops in Djibouti for six to five weeks, which every single day costs us $25,000 for the ship owners.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Bridges have been bombed and businesses destroyed by airstrikes. Government workers in Houthi-controlled areas of the north haven't been paid in two years.

    Before the war, the Yemeni government was the country's biggest employer by far. When wages suddenly stopped, millions lost their livelihoods.

    Stephen Anderson runs the United Nations World Food Program in Yemen.

  • Stephen Anderson:

    The very simple fact is that most of the civil servants as from September 2016 have not — not longer regularly received their salaries. That's affecting the civil servants with their families. That's almost nine million people out of a country of 28 million, 29 million.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    That's what happened to Maimona's family. Her father was a public school teacher, a job that pays middle-class wages here. Now, with almost no money coming in, they are destitute.

    I went back to the hospital to check on her a few days later. Her mother had arrived from their village.

  • Naimi (through translator):

    My husband now receives half-a-month's salary in one year. And when it comes, we have debts to pay that are more than the salary. The house is full of kids and we don't have anything to give them.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Maimona was feeling better after some treatment. The doctors have saved her life for now, but the money problems that nearly killed her will still be there when she returns home.

    The Saudi-led bombing campaign and blockade have brought Yemen's economy to its knees. The Houthis also make life difficult for aid workers to get access to the most needy. Mistrust and harassment of foreign aid organizations is pervasive.

    They are on the ground here, but international staff stay in the capital. Camps like this are very close to the fighting and the intensive airstrikes just over there. International aid workers cannot access areas as dangerous as this very often, and even the Yemeni aid workers often struggle to help these people.

    Meanwhile, the crisis is spiraling, with the number of people going hungry rising by the day.

    Lise Grande heads up the U.N.'s humanitarian effort in Yemen.

  • Lise Grande:

    Most of the 8.5 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 — 8.5 million people are in that category.

    The U.N. estimates that, by the end of this year, if there is not an end to this war, another 10 million Yemenis will be in that 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 this conflict have to sit at that table and agree on how to stop this.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The warring parties are not yet listening to that call. Last month, an offensive for Hodeidah city, currently controlled by the Houthis, was launched by the Saudi-led coalition.

    Almost all the food coming into rebel-held Yemen come travels through that port. A battle risks shutting it and cutting off supplies to millions.

    If they hope to survive, the malnourished children arriving into Yemen's hospitals will need to hold on even longer for this disaster to ease. The truth is, many of them won't outlive this war.

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

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now, after her reporting trip to Houthi-controlled Yemen, we have our intrepid presidential correspondent, Jane Ferguson, here in our studio.

    Jane, that was very hard to watch, such important reporting, which leads me to this question. It has been difficult for reporters to get to where you got behind rebel lines. How did you do that?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    To get in, I had to go alone. I tried for a very long time to see if it was possible to bring a team in, a cameraman of my own. And that wasn't possible, simply because I had to be smuggled in. As you saw in the piece there, I was dressed as a Yemeni woman. So, that was the only way to get past the checkpoints. And, otherwise, essentially, it is just a case of driving in and hoping you are not asked for I.D. and turned back or arrested on the way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, tell us a little bit about — there are two more stories come in this series. Tell us a little bit about them.

    The first one is — explains more of what the U.S. role here is.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    That's right.

    The next story that will be up, we will be talking about the aerial bombardment of these areas. There has been an aerial campaign, a bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels.

    And that has been essentially carried out by the Saudi-led coalition of countries that are fighting the Houthis. But there is a role played by the U.S. military, one that is sort of more passively behind, not quite as visible. And so we're going to be looking at that role.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, just quickly the third report then in the series, the Houthis themselves, who are they, their connection to Iran?

  • Jane Ferguson:

    They are a group, you know, which is becoming more well-known as this conflict carries on.

    But like — because journalists aren't able to get into those areas, that has also been hindering a greater understanding of who they are. They have been accused by the Saudis and the Americans of having very close relationships with Iran, being completely armed by Iran, being allied with Hezbollah, having a more formal relationship with them.

    They say that that is not the case at all, they have a political alliance, a philosophical alliance, but that they themselves are an independent Yemeni group fighting against what they see as an invading force.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's become such a subject of political dispute, including right here in this country.

    Jane Ferguson, such important reporting, thank you.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Thank you.

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