For millions of people who have been there, the burning of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, brought a sharp, personal pain.
Me, too. But far worse, for me, was learning about two weeks after the Notre Dame fire, that bombers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were once again pounding the area around the international airport, and an adjoining air force base on the northern edge of Sana’a, the capitol city of Yemen. I’ve been there, too, and remember distinctly the road that winds its way through densely-packed neighborhoods from the twin air fields to town. When a place I’ve been is blown to hell, I do take it personally.
But why was my feeling worse?
Because the fire in Paris took no human lives, and I was pretty sure that would not be the case in Sana’a. Wasn’t it earlier in the war, when the so-called coalition of American-supported, often American intelligence-guided, Saudi and Emerati bombers hit the old souk, the ancient Sana’a market area, officially a United Nations World Heritage Site, personally, for me, as distinguished and uniquely beautiful a cathedral of commerce as Notre Dame is a cathedral of belief? Yemeni civilian lives were lost in the souk bombings, and structures hundreds of years older than Notre Dame were destroyed beyond repair.
Even as the bombers were hitting north Sana’a, the UN humanitarians in the port city of Hodeidah were scoring a life-saving breakthrough. But it was, what you might call, a breakthrough with Yemeni characteristics.
For the first time since September of last year, in early May, the UN’s World Food Program re-gained access to an enormous port storage facility that then held some 51,000 metric tons of wheat — enough to feed 3.7 million people for a month. In December, a cease-fire in the fighting that had made the wheat warehouse inaccessible was declared, but on the ground the WFP people judged it was still too dangerous to try to get to their wheat.
In February, a quick WFP trip to the warehouse showed about 30% of the wheat was gone, or going bad, and by the May breakthrough still more had been lost to pilferage and rot. But what was saved will keep hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians alive for a month.
What’s been lost due to bad faith negotiations and bad-tempered gunplay from both sides in a local outburst of an unending nationwide war, was a month of food for a million people in a starving land.
It is an example of what our guest Jane Ferguson has called “manmade famine,” and it plays a significant role in the UN Development Program’s casualty count. If the war in Yemen were to end this year, the UNDP says, it would have killed around 233,000 people. About 100,000 have been killed with missiles, bombs and bullets, but many more, about 130,000 innocent civilians, many of them children, have died from lack of food, health services and infrastructure.
Jane Ferguson is an international broadcaster with ten years’ experience living in the Middle East, Jane Ferguson is a Special Correspondent for PBS, leading the show’s coverage in the Middle East and Africa. Jane is also a regular contributor to CBS News. Jane regularly partners with the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting. Her reporting is best known for intrepid, on-the-ground access and visceral storytelling in challenging environments, with a strong emphasis on character-driven, personal stories. Whether in the studio or a conflict zone, Jane brings passion and extensive knowledge to her journalism. She speaks, reads and writes Arabic. As well as her TV work, she writes for various outlets including the New Yorker.