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Visiting UN officials see 'world's largest humanitarian crisis' in Yemen

Yemeni children believed to be infected with cholera receive treatment at a makeshift hospital in Sanaa
Yemeni children believed to be infected with cholera receive treatment at a makeshift hospital in Sanaa AFP

Top UN officials warned that Yemen faces a devastating cholera outbreak and the world's worst humanitarian crisis on visit to the wartorn country Wednesday.


The executive directors of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN Children's Fund (Unicef) and the World Food Programme (WFP) visited Yemen this week to examine the effects of a devastating civil war, which has also seen a bombing campaign by a Saudi-led coalition.

Hundreds of thousands of people could cotract cholera and other diseases, they warned.

“This is the world’s worst cholera outbreak in the midst of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis,” said a statement by the three agencies.

Some 400,000 suspected cases of cholera and 1,900 associated deaths have been recorded.

The three directors, Anthony Lake (Unicef), David Beasley (WFP) and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (WHO), visited hospitals and met Yemeni leaders in both Aden and rebel-occupied Sana’a.

“This visit of the three heads of the UN couldn’t have come at a better time,” Unicef spokesman Bismarck Swangin told RFI by telephone from Sana’a.

Half of cholera cases are children

Coverage of the visit may raise awareness in the rest of the world to the side-effects of what is sometimes called the world's “forgotten war”, he said.

“One of the worst parts of the cholera outbreak is that half of the cases are children,” Swangin pointed out.

UN visit to Yemen

“A quarter of the deaths are children. Some of these children are children who were already malnourished, and so there is a vicious circle between cholera and malnutrition. Malnourished children are more susceptible to cholera and the other way around as well,” he said.

The civil war started in 2015 with rebel Houthi forces occupying the capital Sana’a.

As a result, a coalition lead by Saudi Arabia and backed by the US started a bombing campaign to try and evict them from the city.

Saudi Arabia says that Iran is behind the Houthis, who adhere to the Shia version of Islam and are still occupying the Yemeni capital.

“Nobody is more unhappy about it than the Arab Gulf states who wanted to stop the Iranian expansion in Yemen,” says Professor Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, of the United Arab Emirates University in Dubai.

He claims the Saudi-led move was to "stop the coup that was engineered by the Iranians through the Houthis".

“Unfortunately the Yemen conflict is part of a bigger regional problem and the regional problem means that the Saudi-Iranian problem will continue for a while,” he predicts.

Saudi campaign causes massive collateral damage

The Saudi coalition is fighting the Houthi rebels on a massive scale with weapons supplied by the US and the UK, causing massive collateral damage.

Just last Friday the UN blamed the Saudi coalition for an air strike that killed at least 20 civilians in an area without military targets.

Saudi Arabia describes the war in Yemen as part of a wider struggle against terrorism.

On 25 July the official Saudi Press Agency reported that the coalition - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt - issued a blacklistwith 18 people and entities accused of terrorist activities.

On the list are people and organisations from Libya, Qatar and Yemen.

And behind many of the suspected terrorists, Riyadh sees the hidden hand of Tehran.

Iran rejects Saudi argument

But Iran does not buy that.

“We don’t accept this argument of Saudi Arabia,” says Sayed Laylaz, a political analyst based in Tehran.

“The influence and presence of Iran in Yemen is there already for almost 3,000 years, [long before the existence of] Saudi Arabia as a state. This influence is not military influence, it is cultural and social influence, and the reality is that Houthis are a very big tribe and nobody can ignore them."

According to Leylaz, the Yemen conflict is a spin-off for the struggle about regional supremacy between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Religion, he says, does not play a large role in this.

“There are large Sunni miniroties in Iran and Saudi Arabia has a substantial amount of Shia people within its borders,” he argues.

But on the ground the ongoing conflict means that innocent civilians will go on suffering.

“It is important that first of all the conflict in Yemen comes to an end,” says Swangin of Unicef.

“What we are doing at the moment is basically putting out fires. We are responding to a situation. But the absolute solution is for the conflict to end so that health facilities can be restored, so that healthworkers can come to areas that they have fled, so that communities don’t have to be displaced and the basic civil services system up and running again."

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