Iman Saleh, the general coordinator of the Detroit-based Yemeni Liberation Movement, is now on the 21st day of a Washington, D.C., hunger strike protesting the U.S. backed Saudi blockade of Yemen.
For the past month, the YLM has been protesting with signs and hunger strikes outside the White House and on the Lincoln memorial steps — just a Metro ride away from College Park. Protesters insist they won’t stop until President Joe Biden ends all U.S. support for the blockade.
“I think [starvation] is honestly one of the most violent things that you can do to your body,” said Monica Isaac, a movement organizer and participant. “And it is one of the most violent things that you can do to another human being. To take food and resources away from them.”
Along with the strike, YLM also held several national fasting days, which Isaac said engaged hundreds of people into joining in and understanding this crisis in a “deeply personal way.”
“I got so emotional during…the day,” said Michelle Moraa, a junior at the University of Maryland who took part in a fast on a day she was sick. “I really could not get past the thought of like, I want medicine. And all I kept thinking about were those hundreds of thousands of people who need access to medicine.”
A groundbreaking CNN investigation last March reinvigorated calls to end the blockade, which has restricted fuel and aid from passing through Hodeidah, a key port in Yemen. The report included heart-wrenching images of children starving in overfilled hospitals, as trucks of food and aid sit outside the region, stalled due to a lack of fuel, causing the supplies inside to spoil.
Amid the pandemic and a looming famine, the lack of aid has further exacerbated the plight of the Yemeni people — 400,000 of who are children at risk of dying from food and fuel shortages — who are caught in what the United Nations has long labeled as the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.
Biden’s rhetoric about the civil war in Yemen has been a “public manipulation,” Isaac said, calling his commitment to end the war inconsistent with his ostensible support for the fuel blockade.
Dr. Charles Schmitz, a professor at Towson University specializing in Yemen and the Middle East, agrees, calling Biden’s promise to end the war “election propaganda.”
However, he said what’s occurring right now isn’t actually a blockade — a position echoed by the U.S. government. Schmitz said what we’re seeing right now are the consequences of war and economic collapse, and the term “blockade” is a misnomer, thrown around by both sides, at their convenience.
Moreover, Schmitz said the Houthis — an Iran-backed rebel group fighting against Saudi-backed President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi — are majorly responsible for withholding aid from those in need.
The Houthis have also made the blockade’s end a condition for ceasefire, but this could potentially endanger a UN inspection regime that ensures transports aren’t smuggling in weapons for them, Schmitz said — suggesting those calling for an end to the “blockade” may need to do more research.
“The U.S. is pushing hard on the diplomatic front. That’s what they’re doing. And that doesn’t make a very good protest placard,” he said.
It’s crucial to acknowledge the shades of grey in a situation as complex as this one, Schmitz said — but Moraa and Isaac are more cynical of the U.S.’ role in the war.
While Moraa, a government and politics major, admits she’s not an expert, she finds it hard to believe the U.S. can hold an “objective point of view when [they’ve] been an active player in the game.”
Isaac says her organization has a very “clear-cut” understanding, and their focus is on bringing self-determination back to the Yemeni people and complicity of the U.S. with the Saudi-United Arab Emirates Coalition. Their mission is informed by the stories of real victims, unobscured by larger and more complicated political dynamics.
She also said, ultimately, she believes U.S. imperialism is the biggest threat, both historically and currently, to the global south.
Meanwhile, Schmitz said everybody’s responsible. But still, he said, “you don’t want to oversimplify.”
What they all agree on, however, is the crisis in Yemen has not seen the attention or coverage it deserves. In fact, numerous headlines and news stories over the past several years have dubbed Yemen the silent or forgotten war, ignored by the west, and effectively the world.
Urvi Chowdhury, the operations coordinator for this university’s UNICEF club, said she was drawn to issues like the crisis in Yemen because her own parents had lived through a war-torn environment, during the 1971 Liberation War in Bangladesh.
The sophomore neurobiology and physiology major said it was the momentum from the “student activism” energy this past summer, spurred by the pandemic and protests over police brutality, that made their social media fundraising campaign especially effective, allowing them to raise $4,000.
But it wasn’t until she started fundraising for Yemen that she understood the magnitude, or even became aware, of the crisis. That extended to family, friends and others also involved with the club, adding they weren’t familiar with the scope of the humanitarian crisis until the social media fundraisers.
Isaac said while the reach and depth of CNN’s investigative segment on the war — aired on The Lead with Jake Tapper — was incredibly impactful, it was an “exception to the rule” when it comes to mainstream media coverage.
“[We’ve] talked to folks who didn’t even know where Yemen was in the world…that is very much by design,” she said, pointing to the influence of corporate interests on media.
Schmitz also noted the difficulty for reporters to safely get on the ground in those regions. And that’s where protests like the ones led by YLM are essential, he added — to keep the effort in raising humanitarian aid on the forefront of people’s minds.
Early this year, the UN reported Yemen needed $4 billion to prevent massive famine. Donors failed to raise even half that.
“What would make a real difference, is if the international community stepped up. If the U.S. stepped up,” Schmitz said.