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World

Life In Yemen's Taiz: A City Under Siege

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's been almost three years since the president of Yemen was overthrown. And now the country is in the middle of a civil war that's led to what many aid agencies call a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Here's how it all started. In 2014, rebels from the Iranian-backed Houthi movement stormed Yemen's capital and ousted the government, which was backed by Saudi Arabia. Then Saudi Arabia and eight other Arab countries responded with a massive campaign of airstrikes with support from the U.S. Since then, the fighting has continued. Rounds of U.N. peace talks have failed, thousands of people have died, millions are internally displaced, millions more don't have enough to eat, and the country is in the middle of the world's largest outbreak of cholera.

Peter Maurer is the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and he is in Yemen. He managed to travel through the country a lot in recent days. And he told me what he saw.

PETER MAURER: Destroyed building, destroyed infrastructure, civilian infrastructure in particular. You see hospitals which have been attacked and are only half if at all functional. Trash removal is not existing. This is basically the condition under which epidemics like cholera and others are spreading quickly. It's a particularly difficult situation because this has been the poorest country in the region for many years. And the poorest country got one of the most violent and modern tech warfare at the same time. And the two together lead to the destruction and disruption of life.

MCEVERS: You know, your organization calls the humanitarian situation there catastrophic. Why do you think this is something that just isn't on people's radar? Why isn't it something that more people are paying attention to?

MAURER: You see, the Syrian conflict became a high-profile conflict when big powers were interested and when Syrians started to migrate out of the country. Yemen is less in the spotlight of the international community. And at the same time, Yemeni are displaced internally, but not yet to a large extent externally.

MCEVERS: I would imagine that that's mostly because of geography. I mean, having been to Yemen, I know that it's just not as easy for Yemenis to get out, sharing only a border with Saudi Arabia, which is responsible for the airstrikes in the country, and then the sea. But do you see a time when that could change, when you see an outpouring of Yemenis seeking refuge outside of Yemen?

MAURER: Well, from past experiences in other context of the world from Afghanistan to South African conflicts, I do believe that geographic obstacles are normally not really obstacles for migration if people are fed up. What we see at the present moment is something very similar that we have seen in the Syrian conflict. The first years didn't see a mass exodus out of Syria. But once people are losing hope, they may very well be determined to look for their lives and livelihoods in another place. And then geography will hardly be a barrier which will make them stop.

MCEVERS: You have said that foreign powers can and must influence the warring parties in Yemen to reach some kind of peace. Can you help us understand what is it you think that foreign powers should do?

MAURER: I think the availability of weapons in such a fragile society is quite obvious, and foreign powers still deliver to their respective peers in Yemen weapons without any control, without any vetting.

MCEVERS: So U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, for instance.

MAURER: U.S., Europe. And I think we need to look at those arms deliveries. And I think in the light of the humanitarian consequences, it is important to reconsider what the ramifications are under which you are ready to deliver arms and weapons to either the warring parties in Yemen or those supporting them.

MCEVERS: That was Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, speaking to us from Sana'a, the capital of Yemen.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this conversation, we say Yemen only shares a border with one other country, Saudi Arabia. In fact, Yemen also borders Oman.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 28, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
During this conversation, we say Yemen shares a border with only one other country, Saudi Arabia. In fact, Yemen also borders Oman.