President Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017, at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh. Credit: Official White House Photo, Shealah Craighead via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
"I come and stand at
But none shall hear my silent tread
I knock and yet remain unseen."
Nazim Hikmet, Hiroshima Child
At a US Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on July 18 2017, Republican Senator Todd Young asked officials if the ongoing war in Yemen would exacerbate the catastrophe developing there—one of four countries, along with Southern Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia, which are set to lose 20 million people collectively this year from conflict-driven famine.
Yemen is being bombarded and blockaded using US-supplied weapons and vehicles by a regional coalition marshaled by Saudi Arabia, with US support. Yemen's near-famine conditions and attendant cholera outbreaks are so dire that a child dies there every ten minutes of preventable disease.
At the hearing, Young held aloft a photo of a World Food Program warehouse in Yemen which was destroyed in 2015. He asked David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Program, to name the country responsible for the airstrike that demolished it. Beasley replied that the Saudi-led coalition blockading Yemen had destroyed the warehouse, along with the relief supplies it contained.
A July 2016 Human Rights Watch report documented 13 civilian economic structures that were destroyed by Saudi coalition bombing between March 2015 and February 2016, including:
“Factories, commercial warehouses, a farm, and two power stations. These strikes killed 130 civilians and injured 171 more. The facilities hit by airstrikes produced, stored, or distributed goods for the civilian population including food, medicine, and electricity—items that even before the war were in short supply in Yemen, which is among the poorest countries in the Middle East. Collectively, the facilities employed over 2,500 people; following the attacks, many of the factories ended their production and hundreds of workers lost their livelihoods.”
When asked about the Saudi coalition's destruction of four cranes needed to offload relief supplies in Yemen's port city of Hodeidah, Beasley confirmed that their loss had greatly impeded WFP efforts to deliver food and medicines. Young read from Beasley’s June 27 letter to the Saudi government—only the latest of multiple requests—in which he asked that the WFP be allowed to deliver replacement cranes. The WFP Director said that the Saudis had provided no reply. Young then noted that, in the three weeks since this last letter had been sent, more than 3,000 Yemeni children had died of preventable, famine-related causes.
Medea Benjamin of the antiwar campaign Code Pink was at the hearing, and later thanked Young for rebuking the Saudi government’s imposition of a state of siege, plus the airstrikes that are preventing the delivery of food and medicine to Yemeni civilians. One day later, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported on a July 19 coalition airstrike in Yemen which killed 20 civilians—including women and children—while they were fleeing violence in their home province. The report claimed that more than two million internally displaced Yemenis have "fled elsewhere across Yemen since the beginning of the conflict, but … continue to be exposed to danger as the conflict has affected all of Yemen's mainland governorates."
On July 14, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed two amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would potentially end US participation in the Yemeni civil war. In the past, the White House has provided refueling and targeting assistance to the Saudi-led coalition without congressional authorization. Since October of 2016, the US has doubled the number of jet refueling maneuvers carried out with Saudi and United Arab Emirate jets. The Saudi and UAE jets fly over Yemen, drop bombs until they need to refuel, and then fly back to Saudi airspace where US jets perform mid-air refueling operations. Next, they circle back to Yemen and resume the bombing.
What can be done to end this seeming addiction to war?
In the summer of 2006, I joined peace campaigner Claudia Lefko at a small school that she had helped found in Amman, Jordan. The school served children whose families were refugees from the postwar chaos in Iraq. Many of the children had survived war, death threats and displacement. Lefko had worked with children in her hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts, to prepare a gift for the Iraqis at the school. The gift consisted of strings of paper origami cranes, folded in memory of a Japanese child called Sadako who had died from radiation sickness after the bombing of her home city of Hiroshima in 1945.
In her hospital bed (so the story goes), Sadako occupied her time by attempting to fold 1,000 paper cranes, a feat she hoped would earn her the granting of a special wish that no other child would ever suffer the same fate as those who had been killed and injured in Hiroshima. She succumbed too rapidly to complete the task herself, but other Japanese children who heard about her folded many thousands more. This story has been re-told for decades in innumerable places, making the delicate paper creations a symbol for peace throughout the world.
The Turkish writer Nazim Hikmet wrote a poem about Sadako which has since been set to music. Its words are on my mind today as I think of all the malnourished children from the countries of the terrible Four Famines, and from other conflict-torn, US-targeted countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. I think of their months and years of hunger. Their stories may have ended already during the first half of 2017. Hikmet writes:
"I need no fruit I need no rice
I need no sweets nor even bread
I ask for nothing for myself
For I am dead for I am dead."
The song of the “Hiroshima Child" imagines a child who comes and “stands at every door…unheard and unseen.” In reality, we, the living, can choose to approach the doors of elected representatives and of our neighbors, or we can stay at home. We can choose whether or not to be heard and seen.
Robert Naiman at Just Foreign Policy points out that many people don’t know that the House of Representatives has voted to prohibit US participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. So we must publicize the vote on social media, push for a House roll call vote on the Davidson-Nolan prohibitions on Defense Appropriation, and urge the Senate to pass the same provisions as the House.
I recognize that legislative activism at the heart of an empire addicted to war is a tool of limited use. But considering the impending disaster for which 2017 may well be remembered—as the worst famine year in post-WWII history—we don’t have the luxury to reject any of the tools and opportunities that are presented to us. I also personally oppose all defense appropriations and have refused all payment of federal income tax since 1980.
Billions, perhaps trillions of dollars will be spent to send weapons, weapon systems, fighter jets, ammunition, and military support to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, fueling new arms races and raising the profits of US weapon makers. We must choose to stand at the doors of our leaders and of anyone else who might have influence over this situation, honoring past sacrifices and the innocent lives we were unable to save even as we redouble our efforts to stop the war makers from constantly gaining the upper hand in our lives.
We can never reverse the decisions to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we cannot prevent all of the dying that is set to come this fateful summer in the countries of the Four Famines. In her song, Sadako, long beyond saving even as she folded more paper cranes in her bed, doesn't ask us to erase her own terrible loss, but to achieve whatever change that we can, and to lose no more time in doing so:
"All that I need is that for peace
You fight today you fight today
So that the children of this world
Can live and grow and laugh and play."