Notes From An Invisible War


Raney Aronson: I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of the PBS series Frontline. And you’re listening to The Frontline Dispatch. This time, Notes from an Invisible War.

Raney Aronson: It’s been around 3 years since the current war broke out in Yemen. It started when a rebel group, the Houthis, unseated the president and seized the capital and much of the country. A few months later, A Saudi led coalition began a bombing campaign against them. It’s thought that more than ten thousand people are estimated to have died since the conflict began. Seven million now face famine. It’s caused one of the biggest cholera outbreak health officials have ever recorded. Recently, the United Nations declared Yemen the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. And yet, for months now, very few foreign journalists have been able to get into the country. But this May, longtime FRONTLINE filmmaker Martin Smith and his team were allowed in. In this episode of the FRONTLINE Dispatch, he gives us a rare look at what he witnessed.

Martin Smith: When we were in Yemen in May of 2017, we wanted to come in and see the consequences of the two plus years of war and airstrikes by a Saudi led coalition. You have the region’s wealthiest country bombing the region’s poorest. And people are not seeing what’s going on. We’re talking thousands of civilian dead.

Unidentified Boy: “It fell and hit the middle of the house…(sound effects) …Boom…(sound effects)

Martin Smith: The current war began when the Houthis, a rebel group from Northern Yemen, took the capital in 2014. Months later the Saudis responded with a massive air campaign. And there’s a lot of blame to go around here. The Houthis have blocked aid shipments, they’ve detained and even tortured their opponents and they’ve prevented human rights organizations from doing their work. But nothing has really caused as much death and destruction as the Saudi bombs. We went to the site of a funeral bombing. It had taken place late last year. And the Saudis say they mistook it for a gathering of Houthi officials. We were there walking amongst the-the ruins. You could hear the sounds of the metal scraping and screeching as the wind blew through the building. You saw people’s shoes that had been left outside. Even body parts hanging from the rafters. And, you know, it was eerie.

Martin Smith: You were standing right here?

Man: The hall was packed with people. There was a huge explosion. I got out of the hall, but some of my family who were outside when it happened rushed inside to help our guests. But those rescuers were all killed in the second strike. They didn’t even have a chance to help.

Martin Smith: It was what’s called a “double tap.” As people ran back inside to save lives a second missile hit. About a hundred and fifty people were died there, four to five hundred people were injured. This man says he lost 26 members of his family.

Martin Smith: The Saudis say this was a mistake. That they didn’t intend to bomb a funeral.

Man: It was not a mistake. That was not the first time they bombed a funeral.

Martin Smith: We were taken to other bombing sites by our Houthi minders, but the fact is you can see the war in Yemen wherever you go. It’s just not always immediately evident. We were in one supermarket in the capital, Sana’a. And it was a fairly well stocked supermarket. It looked like a lot of supermarkets in the US. We then noticed that people were paying not with cash, but with coupons.

Shopper: It’s the first month we get these coupons. The first time the employees in the country receive such coupons, because we have not received a salary.

Martin Smith: We ran into people who were working and hadn’t been paid in many, many months. The whole banking system had pretty much collapsed, so the cash just wasn’t there. That’s just a small example of how you see the war affecting people’s daily lives everywhere you go. 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 8 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. The hospital we visited, they were already beyond capacity. One nurse that I was talking to talked about how she was coming to see one of her patients on her morning rounds. The beds were all full. And there was some tubing going down past the patients she was seeing and she didn’t know where it was going. And she looked and saw that under the bed was another patient, a cholera case, lying under the bed. The World Health Organization is saying that they expect more than seven hundred thousand cases of cholera. And that twenty-one hundred people have died, most of those are children. The nurses and doctors were suffering from a lack of medicines and equipment. And they were there working in spite of the fact that they hadn’t been paid. One nurse told me it was her duty to provide health care as a nurse.

Nurse: If I will not work, then they will die. And maybe tomorrow I’ll be sick, and nobody will see me.

Martin Smith: People often ask why the Saudis are bombing Yemen. It's a question for the Saudis.They’ll tell you that the Houthis are a proxy of their arch rival, Iran. And the Houthis are getting some Iranian support and training, but the extent is unclear. And certainly, they lack the firepower of the Saudis. Parts of the country have been isolated because of bomb strikes on bridges...People on the ground in Yemen are suffering. They’re caught in the, 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.

Nurse: 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 Aaleen. A seven-month old baby. There were always malnutrition cases in Yemen, but the nurse told us that the number of cases had more than doubled since the war.

Nurse: 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.

Martin Smith: And maybe an hour later, another mother came in with her daughter. Ruqayah, her name was, was a five-year-old girl. Ruqayah had come from a IDP, an internally displaced persons’ camp, that was quite a ways away up near the Saudi border. Travelled several hours. Because the hospital up near her had been bombed. I took my camera and I took a few still shots of her. She just looked into the lens and I remember being quite…um, sort of physically affected by seeing her. And her staring into the lens as if she was saying to the world, “look at me.” So as a reporter I'm just trying to pull myself together and, uh, and look at this child. And realize that out beyond the capital there's many more children like this that can't get to this hospital.

Nurse: 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.

Nurse: Things are getting worse. We say that there is hope for things to get better, but it is worse. Disease is on the rise. Malnutrition is on the rise. And the wars are getting more intense because they are not stopping the airstrikes of Yemen. And it’s mostly affects children.

Martin Smith: And who do you blame for the war?

Nurse: For the war? I blame this nation and the foreign countries. That’s how I see it. Both sides. They're attacking the weak. That's who they are targeting. They are not targeting the strong. Just the poor and the weak in Yemen.

Martin Smith: We had to leave the hospital before I knew what the fate of those two girls was going to be. I don’t know what happened to them. What I do know is that health workers in Yemen say that every ten minutes a child dies of preventable causes. Americans may not be aware of American involvement in the war in Yemen. But Yemenis, in Sanaa and-and in northern Yemen, certainly know where the weapons are coming from. As you drive around Sana’a, you see graffiti — anti American graffiti — that says, “American bombs kill Yemeni children” or “cholera, America’s gift to Yemen.” You see things like that. Just a few days after we arrived, there was a huge rally in the middle of Sanaa, called the “Say No to American Terrorism” rally. Thousands gathered to protest the arrival of President Trump in Riyadh, where he announced his intention to approve a hundred and ten billion dollar arms package to the Saudis.

Protester: We respect the United States of America and we hold a respect in our hearts. But we came here in order to express our outrage against the United States policy.

Crowd chant: America is the mother of terrorism! (Do not have currently translated, in as ambi.)

Martin Smith: It was pretty evident that we were an American TV crew, but absolutely no hostility was directed at us. There was only a sense that, uh, our government was to blame and ordinary Yemenis want the world to be aware of what’s going on.

Massacre of El Salvador
Massacre in El Salvador
FRONTLINE, Retro Report and ProPublica examine the ongoing fight for justice for the horrific 1981 attack on the village of El Mozote and surrounding areas.
November 9, 2021