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Despite Stalemate In Yemen, People Face Famine And Cholera Outbreak


A civil war in Yemen appears to be at a stalemate, but the U.N. is warning it has created a disastrous humanitarian situation which is only getting worse. Yemen was already one of the poorest countries among its neighbors. Now a third of its population faces famine while a massive cholera outbreak continues. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: This has become a grim routine for the U.N. special envoy on Yemen. Ould Cheikh Ahmed was back at the U.N. Security Council today, saying he's still trying to get the warring sides to sit down and talk.


OULD CHEIKH AHMED: If we are waiting to have the perfect solution or the perfect paper, we'll never get it. We have to go to the table.

KELEMEN: Saudi Arabia, with U.S. logistical and targeting support, launched an air campaign in March of 2015. That was after Houthi rebels, who the Saudis say are backed by Iran, took over Yemen's capital. It's the civilians who are suffering, says Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Yemen.

JAMIE MCGOLDRICK: There are no good guys in this fight. What you've got is 27 million people in a country that's the poorest in the Middle East pitted against some of the strongest and biggest and richest countries in the world and a war that's lasted for two and a half years. And the casualties and the injuries and the deaths are totally unnecessary because I would be quite hard pushed to find out, why are people fighting this war?

KELEMEN: McGoldrick came to NPR on a recent trip to Washington, trying to raise the alarms about Yemen.

MCGOLDRICK: This case is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. It's the largest cholera outbreak in the world in the sense that probably 1 million suspected cases by the end of the year. And there'll be about 2,500 associated deaths with that. On the other side, you've got a serious food insecurity issue and you've got the threat of famine for 7 million people.

KELEMEN: One big test is the port of Hudaydah. The U.S. bought new cranes to replace the ones destroyed by airstrikes. But the Saudis want the U.N. to administer the port, and McGoldrick says the U.N. can only do so much.

MCGOLDRICK: We need the port. I mean, the port's the biggest port in the country. It serves 80 percent of the population. It's a vital lifeline for commercial and humanitarian assistance.

KELEMEN: But Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.N., Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, sees things differently.


ABDALLAH AL-MOUALLIMI: The emphasis by the Houthis on Hudaydah is very obvious. It's because it is the source of revenue. And where does that revenue go? Does it go to fight cholera? No.

KELEMEN: He says it lines the pockets of Houthi fighters who buy weapons from Iran. The U.N. is now proposing a package of confidence-building steps that includes the reopening of that port and financial oversight to make sure government salaries are paid there and across the country. The U.N. is also trying to work through another dispute with the Saudis that's over a recent report that blamed the Saudi-led coalition for killing or injuring 683 children in Yemen. Last week, the Saudi ambassador called the figures misleading.


AL-MOUALLIMI: The Houthis throw into battle large numbers of children to fight on their behalf. We believe that in such cases, if there are casualties, the responsibility actually lies with the party that has put them forward for battle.

KELEMEN: All sides do share the blame for this conflict, says McGoldrick, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator, who's worried about a couple of things.

MCGOLDRICK: The blatant disregard for international humanitarian law. And I think overall a sort of a collective indifference to the suffering of the country despite all the size, the magnitude and the alarm bells that have been rung.

KELEMEN: U.S. officials say they are urging all sides to compromise, though the U.S. continues to provide Saudi Arabia with advanced weapons systems to counter Iran's influence in the region. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.


Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.