'Two Eyewitness Accounts of Catastrophe in the Yemen.'

On 10 October, Caabu and the MBI Al Jaber Foundation hosted a joint event on the conflict in Yemen, with two journalists who have recently returned from the country, Peter Oborne and Nawal Al-Maghafi. The event was chaired by Paula Sherriff MP.


Peter Oborne and Nawal Al-Maghafi are among only a handful of correspondents to have ventured into war-torn Yemen of late. Oborne gave a bleak description of the impact of Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, including on Sa’da, a Houthi-controlled area in north-west Yemen he visited in which many schools and hospitals, including those affiliated to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have been completely flattened. He described a chilling story from a hospital worker, who told Oborne about an attack on a house which killed two people. As the ambulance staff went to check the rubble, another air strike hit, this time killing 26 people. Such examples of ‘double tap’ strikes are common place. Oborne also saw evidence of cluster bomb use, weapons containing multiple explosives. Just before he arrived, a young boy had picked up a discarded cluster bomb and was immediately killed. This particular one had been Brazilian-made, but Oborne said he saw evidence of British-made bombs used in Saudi airstrikes too.

Regarding the culpability of the West in the unfolding carnage, Oborne was damning. Not only does the UK sell arms to Saudi Arabia, but they actively resist any form of independent enquiry into the atrocities committed by both sides, the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Instead they only support a Saudi-led enquiry, inadequate for obvious reasons. He described the air attacks on 8 October on a funeral procession, which killed at least 140 people, as a particularly shaming event, and one in which both the UK and US have blood on their hands. Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood tweeted about it, but refrained from strongly condemning it or calling for an independent investigation. According to a Reuters article, American senior figures even expressed concern that the US may be liable for war crimes. According to Oborne, the UK and US are still protecting Saudi from their gross violation of international humanitarian law. At what point do they become guilty of war crimes?  Oborne suspects a long time ago. 

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Nawal Al-Maghafi was brought up in Yemen and has covered the country for the BBC for several years, including throughout all three rounds of peace talks. Like Oborne, she has seen the devastating bombings of schools and hospitals, and noted the anger of Yemenis at this foreign intervention. When she visited with Oborne following a four month ceasefire, she noticed how Yemenis were beginning to look beyond the rubble and starting to see the chaos on the ground. They could see that former president Ali Abdullah Saleh did not in fact rule the country, that the Central Bank was running out of money, and that salaries were quickly drying up. As such, people were beginning to regret sending their sons to fight. However once this ceasefire broke down and the bombing returned, people began sending their sons to fight once more, often as the only source of income.

Al-Maghafi also described the horrific humanitarian situation. Although according to the UN there is no blockade, she argued that this is misleading. While the Saudis may generally sign off the aid, they also bomb the main ports , and as a result aid  is often forced to wait five or six months before being offloaded. Malnourishment was bad before the war, but people at least had forms of coping mechanisms. Now, in areas such as Houdeida, the rich are middle class, the middle class are poor, and the poor are starving. Aid agencies are doing their best but can only go so far, and many areas are difficult to access. Vital bridges and infrastructure have been bombed. The health system is on the brink. As she eloquently put it, a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Yemen, but it is not from a natural disaster. It is man made, and unfortunately the UK is heavily involved.

As an audience member noted, the UK’s role in Yemen in fact predates the Saudi-led coalition in 2015. Al-Maghafi has indeed covered the widepsread use of CIA drone attacks in Yemen since 9/11, although at the time it was unknown that the MI6 was also involved. As such, while there was significant anti-US sentiment in Yemen as a result of this drone warfare, Yemenis had held more sympathetic attitudes towards Britain. This is quickly changing. 

The conflict is also playing into the hands of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. This is the case both indirectly, as power vacuums have given such groups room to exploit, and also more directly. Oborne made the interesting observation that the Saudi-led coalition has refrained from attacking al-Qaeda forces, and has even been seen fighting along them.  Such alliances are not unique to Yemen.

When asked about atrocities committed by the Houthi-Saleh alliance in the south, such as the siege of Taiz, although Al-Maghafi was unable to visit these areas, she recognised that many atrocities are being committed. However she argued that the relentless bombing has meant that northern Yemenis have been less able to see this, fixated on the airstrikes. 

The Chair of the All-Parliamentary Group for Yemen, Keith Vaz enquired about ways in which some sort of resolution to the conflict can be initiated, and which actors should be involved in the process. Al-Maghafi argued that unfortunately a great opportunity was missed at the start of the conflict, and and talks should have been pushed before dropping bombs, which was a hugely a rushed decision.  Since then, the UK has spent too long blocking investigations, investigations which neither side of the conflict are interested in. There was disagreement as to who should be included in the peacetalks.  Al-Maghafi downplayed the alleged Iran-Houthi alliance, noting that is hard for the Iranians to get anything into Yemen. An Oxfam representative called for all actors to be in included the same room, whereas Al-Maghafi favoured a more stripped down discussion in which the key actors could agree on some ceasefire.

Oborne compared the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen to Syria, but argued that it has been ignored in the UK for various reasons, notably as there is no visible refugee crisis and as in this conflict the UK government is on the side of the oppressor. This clearly exposes the UK’s hypocrisy, and sends the message to the world that we only care about human rights when it is committed by our enemies. He argued that sending a message to the Saudis that gross breaches of international humanitarian law are not acceptable would go a long way to stopping the conflict.

When asked about the role the foreign affairs select committee could play, Paula Sherriff said an enquiry might encourage Boris Johnson to act. One existing parliamentary report from Business, Innovation and Skills and International Development Committees in fact already called on arm sales to Saudi to be halted in light of war crimes being committed in Yemen. Keith Vaz urged everyone to keep Yemen on the parliamentary agenda, and highlighted the important role of Caabu in this.  Oborne welcomed the fact that people are at last starting to take an interest in Yemen, as seen by Al-Maghafi’s recent news reports on the BBC which got over three million hits.