Bian: It took us too long to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis in Yemen

Andrea Bian, Op-Ed Contributor

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On Friday, The New York Times website featured a harrowing image on its homepage of a malnourished child, accompanied by an emphatic, all-caps headline: “The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia’s War.” Obviously intended to attract readers to an increasingly serious humanitarian crisis, the image made me stop in my tracks.

The Yemeni Civil War has gone on for over three years. In March 2015, a Saudi Arabian coalition began to use airstrikes against Houthi rebels attempting to overtake the government. Backed by the United States, their use of weapons has forced millions to flee and limited resources, pushing the population to the brink of starvation. A war of such devastation and magnitude seemingly should receive extensive media coverage, informing the Western world especially of the millions of suffering men, women and children.

A simple Google search will provide the shocking statistics: 22.2 million people, or 75 percent of Yemen’s population, are in some need of humanitarian assistance. Severe food insecurity could affect up to 14 million people in the coming months, and at the end of last year, the United Nations reported 5,558 civilians killed and 9,065 injured. Months later, the attacks show no signs of stopping: 40 children died in a Saudi-United Arab Emirates coalition airstrike on a school bus on Aug. 9.

I had known about the crisis in Yemen before, having briefly touched on it in my senior year international studies class in high school. I realized, though, that The Times’ interactive website feature that ran last week was one of the first and only forms of large-scale coverage I’ve personally seen of the crisis.

Social media coverage was no different: As a frequent social media user, I realize now that I have barely seen tweets about the war since it began. I have noticed that mainstream news articles about the conflict have slightly increased in frequency over this past summer, especially after the bus attack, but only just now do I see large headlines splashed across pages in the way they should’ve been months ago.

With the recent news that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was reportedly killed in Turkey by Saudi agents on Oct. 2, a spotlight has been placed on the Saudi government and, in turn, their participation in the crisis in Yemen. Why, however, must it take a horrific event like this to hold the Saudi government accountable for a gross violation of human rights?

Talking and reporting about the Yemeni civil war is not going to directly fix anything. But what’s most concerning about the spotty coverage of the war in Western media is the ensuing lack of basic information that Americans have on what the UN calls “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” With a country on the verge of the worst famine in the past century, it is at least the responsibility of an informed citizen to recognize human suffering — as well as the U.S.’ role.

Upon first glance, a crisis like this may seem distant, halfway across the world. However, the United States government has backed the Saudi coalition since the beginning of the war in March 2015. As the war’s effects worsen to almost unimaginable circumstances, it’s difficult not to imagine ourselves complicit in the devastation. The bomb that killed 40 children in August was produced by the U.S. At this point, the destruction has become so serious that the United States can no longer justify its association with the Saudi coalition.

Most importantly, it should not have taken this long for the news to reach the Western world on a large scale. The Saudi government has banned foreign journalists from the hardest-hit parts of Yemen, but that shouldn’t stop Americans from at least knowing about blatant human rights violations, no matter how far away they are. I learned about this event much later than I should have, and to see so many others unintentionally unaware of the magnitude of the situation is frustrating. To think this war was ever invisible to the Western world is embarrassing, especially considering the role of the United States and its complicity in the destruction.

Going into further detail on this story would involve reckoning with the fact that the United States has a history of association with Saudi Arabia, a country with a horrifying human rights record. Despite how uncomfortable that might be to come to terms with, the media has a duty to cover every story with fairness and equity. I believe they dropped the ball in covering this one properly.

We are better, and the Yemeni people deserve better.

Andrea Bian is a Medill Freshman. She can be contacted at andreabian2022@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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