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Yemen war a recurring nightmare, says humanitarian chief for UN

Conflict-affected Yemenis receive free bread in April amid

Conflict-affected Yemenis receive free bread in April amid a severe shortage of food in Sana'a, the country's war-torn capital.   Credit: EPA-EFE / REX / Shutterstock / Yahya Arhab

UNITED NATIONS — Observing the bloody civil war in Yemen is like watching a grim version of the Hollywood hit "Groundhog Day," where the protagonist can’t escape the same day repeating on an endless loop, the head of the UN's humanitarian agency said Monday.

"Just as in 'Groundhog Day,' the details in my briefings to you change from month to month,” said Mark Lowcock, the UN's under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, during a Security Council briefing on the conflict.

“The larger picture though does not … Yemen is getting more violent, not less. The conflict is getting worse, not better. Fighting this year has displaced more than 250,000 people," Lowcock said. "The number of incidents killing or injuring children more than tripled between the last quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of this year. In recent days, we have also seen a dangerous and reprehensible increase in attacks on Saudi Arabia, as well as airstrikes in Sana’a and other areas.”

Lowcock cited one independent monitoring group’s assessment of the death toll, saying it has reached 70,000 people since 2016. The war began in March 2014. It is a battle between a coalition of Saudi Arabian-led and U.S.-backed countries against the Houthis, a rebel group widely suspected of having Iranian backing who seized power after an attack on Sana'a, Yemen's capital.

The conflict and its casualties caught the attention of Congress, including Republican lawmakers in the Senate and House who broke with the administration of President Donald Trump recently to pass measures designed to cut U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen. The measure was vetoed by Trump in April and a Senate vote in May did not have enough votes to override the veto.   

“All the fighting has, though, led to relatively few major shifts in control,” Lowcock said. “Today, the large majority of Yemenis live in areas controlled by Ansar Allah and their allies. After tens of thousands of airstrikes, shells, mortars and ground clashes, this has changed only marginally since 2016. So, the war is not only brutal, it is unwinnable.”

Yemen has become and remains a humanitarian disaster, Lowcock said.

“We give you the figures every month,” he said. “Eighty percent of the population — more than 24 million people — need assistance and protection, including 10 million who rely on food aid to survive. Some 600 incidents per month damage or destroy civilian infrastructure. More than 100 hospitals, health facilities and schools were hit just last year. A quarter of children are out of school. More than 3.3 million people remain displaced. The economy has been devastated, shrinking by 40 percent or more.”

He addressed the Security Council along with the UN World Food Program Director David Beasley and Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy to Yemen.

“We continue to face fierce resistance to simply just doing our job to keep people alive,” Beasley said, adding the agency learned 18 months ago of evidence that food the agency provides was diverted from its intended recipients in some Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.

"From the mouths of hungry little boys and little girls,” Beasley said of the food diversions.

Of the three experts who briefed Council members, Griffiths struck the most positive tone, saying he was heartened that a cease-fire agreement reached in December concerning the key port city of Hodeidah had been holding and that civilian casualties had dropped by 68 percent.

“I nevertheless remain deeply concerned by continued violence and civilian casualties,” Griffith's said. “However, it is clear that the overall de-escalation continues to benefit the people of the city and the humanitarian response.”

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