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'Biggest humanitarian disaster in the world'

Carsten Grün
December 6, 2018

Peace talks underway in Sweden are the latest attempt to put an end to the war in Yemen through negotiations. That in itself shows how hardened the sides have become — at the expense of all of the people in the middle.

Street in Taiz, Yemen, wrecked by fighting
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Al Zekri

What began four years ago as a civil war in Yemen has now become a war of proxy and intervention, especially between the Middle Eastern powers Saudi Arabia and Iran. About 10,000 people have been killed so far. Half of Yemen's 28 million inhabitants face famine. Thousands more people are trying to flee. Peace talks between the government and the Houthi rebels have repeatedly failed.

A few hours before the start of peace talks in Stockholm on Thursday, Yemen's government and the Houthi rebels once again outdid each other with demands and threats.

Karl-Otto Zentel, the general secretary of the aid organization Care Deutschland, spoke with DW about the civil war and the chances for peace.

DW: How likely is a successful outcome from the Yemen peace talks in Stockholm?

Karl-Otto Zentel: For the first time since 2016, the parties involved in the conflict have agreed to hold talks. That alone is the first success. Peace always requires a first step, and both parties repeatedly refused to do so over the past two years. But, if these talks do not lead to improved conditions for the people in Yemen, there will be no success.

Read more: Wounded Houthi rebels to be evacuated from Yemen ahead of peace talks in Sweden

How do you assess the role of arms manufacturers such as Germany's Rheinmetall, which supply the warring parties with weapons?

We readily welcomed the halt of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. We were, however, disappointed afterward when it became known that it would only apply for two months.

It is a matter of clear policy, and that is the role of politics and not that of a single company. And the situation remains that if there is peace in Yemen, weapons will no longer be used. This must be the ultimate objective.

Deutschland Karl-Otto Zentel von CARE
Zentel says the ban on weapons exports to Saudi Arabia did not go far enoughImage: CARE/A. Al-Ansi

What role does the German government have in such a situation?

The government should do what it agreed in the coalition agreement: commit to no arms exports to parties active in the Yemen conflict. For us, this promise was unequivocal, and the excuses surrounding any new [export] approvals must be understood as contradicting this.

Read more: Angela Merkel puts on hold arms sales to Saudi Arabia

As always in wars such as these, there is also disease. Which health problems are people suffering from the most?

On the one hand, they are simply starving. Recently when I was there, many women told me that they eat less so that they can ensure that their children survive. In addition, there is the expulsion from cities like Hodeida, which are conflict zones: Families flee to the countryside to live in makeshift shelters, where they are then at the mercy of the weather.

I saw many children with eczema, in addition to diarrheal diseases due to the poor water supply. This is also one of the main reasons for the renewed rise in cholera.

And something often forgotten: Many people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes or cancer no longer have a chance of survival. Hospitals are overcrowded and undersupplied; medical evacuation is not possible because the airports are closed to civilian traffic. And, due to the collapsed health system, there are hardly any vaccinations left. Because of this, polio and diphtheria are on the rise.

Yemen has little agricultural land. How does this affect the supply situation?

It has dramatic consequences. Yemen depends on imports for 90 percent of its food. And, if the main ports are not fully accessible and the unloading of ships is hampered by fighting, not enough food can enter the country.

Read more:Estimated 85,000 child malnutrition deaths in wartorn Yemen  

What role does the international community have in resolving the conflict? Is the magnitude of the catastrophe not recognized?

It is rather a problem of willingness. The United Nations has repeatedly employed drastic language to emphasize that Yemen is currently the biggest humanitarian disaster in the world. Recently the photo of the emaciated girl in The New York Times went around the world. Today, a current report was published stating that 65,000 people in the country are so acutely starving that the criteria for famine have been met.

There are an inconceivable 20 million people on the brink of starvation. One is left wondering what the world is waiting for — and how bad it needs to get in order to increase the pressure. Yemenis are not fleeing to Europe, and most of the population are seeking security in their own country. That could explain the lack of interest to some extent; perhaps we have to acknowledge that.

Should the pressure on Saudi Arabia be increased? And what would that entail?

This is not about individual actors: The situation in Yemen is complex and the longer the conflict lasts, the more fragmented the fronts become. Therefore, we have to act quickly, and consistently. Yemen needs an inclusive and comprehensive peace process that involves everyone; otherwise, an agreement — no matter how difficult to reach — will not hold. In order to reunite a population after such a conflict, everyone must be at the table, starting with women, who make up half of the population and must be represented.

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