Lara Kajs | 6 June 2020 |
Governments withhold and control food, or block aid as a means to manage their citizens. Armed groups use the promise of the next meal as a psychological means to entice civilians to participate in the conflict. In conflict and famine – when starvation is used as a weapon of war, humanitarian groups are faced with the struggle to meet food insecurity but also find themselves caught in the crossfire of the conflict.
Yemen is facing the largest famine the world has seen in many decades, with millions of victims. The country is also suffering from the largest cholera outbreak in human history, and all of this as the country has been deep in civil conflict since March 2015. Ten million people are in acute need in Yemen from the combination of famine, disease, and war. The bottom line is two-fold: humanitarian conditions are desperate, and the situation is completely man-made.
As supplies dwindle, aid groups fear the threat of famine is real. About 130 children or more die every day in the war-torn country from starvation and disease. The lack of food is now endemic. Food prices have soared, the economy has collapsed, and government employees have not been paid in more than a year, which has forced 70 percent of the population (about 24 million Yemini people), to rely on aid – aid that for a significant amount of time had been blocked from being delivered to the people of Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition.
As many as 7 million people in Yemen, mainly children, are on the brink of starvation and rely completely on food aid to survive. Children who die of starvation do not cry; they are so weak they quietly slip away, their deaths often unnoticed at first in hospitals overwhelmed by patients.
Aid workers see the disaster of war up close and personal. With no power to stop the conflict, they are left, along with everyone else, to find a way to help and to survive. The sad reality is that even if the international community provides millions of dollars in humanitarian relief, Yemen will not recover until the fighting stops.
In April 2020, a ceasefire was declared due to the coronavirus pandemic; however, by June the Saudi-led coalition returned to its bombing campaign in Sanaa. The coronavirus pandemic has added to the already desperate conditions in Yemen. A shortage of COVID-19 tests (there are approximately 31 tests per 1 million people) prevents medical professionals from knowing who has the virus. There is a shortage of beds and basic medicines to treat the sick. It is next to impossible to fight off coronavirus with an immune system already compromised by cholera and starvation.
In South Sudan, the situation is equally dire. The world’s youngest nation has moved into its seventh year of conflict, amid allegations of war crimes and “ethnic cleansing” that has killed tens of thousands since December 2013; although the fighting has diminished as the country elected a new unity cabinet in mid-March. The hope is that peace will prevail.
The conflict has also plunged pockets of the country into famine. South Sudan is among several countries most at risk of a hunger pandemic according to the UN World Food Program. Nearly 60 percent of the population struggles to find enough food to eat. An estimated 1.3 million people are on the brink of starvation, according to the latest food and security analysis update by the UN and South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics.
Almost half the population of Central Equatoria State– some 390,000 people – are facing extreme hunger, a number that is expected to increase insignificantly in the coming months. Residents in Yei and Lainya towns say they are living in a prison and blame the government for stealing their food and denying them access to their fields. Government soldiers take food from civilians and leave women and children with nothing to eat. People are afraid to grow food for fear of being labeled rebels and having their crops taken or burned.
In May, South Sudan’s Vice President, Riek Machar as well as his wife, several bodyguards, and other staff, tested positive for COVID-19. Additionally, two refugee camps – Juba, where approximately 30,000 people are protected, and Bentiu, home to 120,000 people – reported cases of coronavirus. Treatment for severe cases is limited to non-existent. Most infected people are being treated at home with isolation. However, as is with the case of Yemen, when an individual’s immune system is already compromised by severe malnourishment, the body’s ability to fight off a deadly virus like COVID-19 is strained.
Since the start of the conflict in Syria, the Assad government has made use of starvation as a weapon, habitual. Crop burning, bombing fields, and food storage facilities, sealing off besieged areas, and denying access to food, water, medical supplies, and other aid, have become regular offenses by the Assad regime.
The Syrian government has relentlessly deprived civilians of food, using hunger as a weapon to keep the people subdued and to limit opposition. Nearly 11.1 million people live on some type of aid. About 75 percent of the population of Syria lives in extreme poverty. At least 9.3 million people are desperate for food. The cost of basic necessities has risen 67 percent since June 2019. Humanitarian relief has been restricted or blocked. Similar tactics have also been used in the conflicts in Yemen and South Sudan and like those countries, the situation in Syria is completely man-made.
Nearly 6.1 million people in Syria live in besieged areas, and the majority are in places under military control. Nearly 6,000 people are displaced every day due to bombed-out, squalid living conditions. Although there are no reliable statistics on the number of deaths since the beginning of the conflict, estimates put the death toll at 750,000. Malnutrition is a common cause of death.
At least 1 million children are out of school due to COVID-19 closure. These students were just returning to the classroom after nearly seven years of missed education due to conflict and displacement. An outbreak of coronavirus would be devastating to Syria.
Photo Credit: A child in Yemen eats a ready-to-use therapeutic food bag/UNICEF – from USAID photos – License by CC. 2.0 International License