Around 4:30 pm on a sunny April afternoon in 1937, the left-leaning, staunchly republican residents of the Basque town of Guernica were startled—then horrified—by the bombing campaign of the Nazi German Condor Legion, which struck them over and over again for two hours. The raid, in support of the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco, shocked the conscience of the world and inspired Pablo Picasso’s most renowned painting. I saw it most recently in Madrid this spring. What leaped out at me most powerfully was not the busy carnage, the startled stallion, or the awkward corpse. It was the woman off to the left holding a dead baby, inconsolable, engulfed in madness. What came to my mind was how coarsened our global conscience has become, given that hundreds of Guernicas are happening every month in Yemen—and not even Reddit users seem to be taking note.
Last Tuesday, a Saudi-led airstrike bombed al-Atera village in the province of Taiz south of Sanaa, striking a refugee settlement and killing 20 innocent civilians. The victims were internally displaced people, many from the same family. They included seven women and four children. You wonder if a surviving mother held her limp child the same way Picasso’s bereaved woman did.
Across northern Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition has repeatedly struck civilian facilities—schools, hospitals, and key bridges used for food transport. The airstrikes, to which the US military gives logistical and strategic aid, have turned old Sanaa, a UNESCO heritage site dotted with the country’s distinctive gingerbread houses, into rubble.
The area is held by the Helpers of God (Houthi) militia, which took over the capital in an ill-considered move in September 2014 and consolidated rule over much of the north and west of the country in the succeeding months, overthrowing and expelling President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Houthis derive from the moderate Zaydi branch of Shiism and resent the increasing influence of Saudi hard-line Wahhabism. By March 2015, Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened on the side of Mansour Hadi and the portion of the army loyal to him, taking the southern port of Aden and bottling up the Houthis in what had been called “North Yemen” until 1991.
The Saudis maintain that the Houthis are backed by Iran, but they are mostly a local, nativist movement. Iranian support for them is minor. While the Saudis have been active mainly from the air, their ally, the United Arab Emirates, has organized elite fighting units of southern Yemenis from the separatist Hirak faction, who now overshadow the regular army in the south and east, which is loyal to Mansour Hadi.
The intensive bombardment around Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, came as part of the coalition’s attempt to take that city and the entire province from the Houthis. Taiz is now split between Houthi-controlled areas and neighborhoods in the hands of forces loyal to Mansour Hadi. Coalition sources claim that they have taken control of the road from the Houthi-held Red Sea port of Hodeida to Taiz, cutting off the major avenue of Houthi resupply to the city, which lies to the south of the capital of Sanaa. The United Arab Emirates now appears to control another important port, Mokha, which overlooks the entrance to the Red Sea at the Bab al-Mandab straits. Abu Dhabi is installing a long-term UAE garrison there. Some 10 percent of world trade goes through the Red Sea via the Suez Canal.
The Yemen war is one of the irritants that led to the current crisis within the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait are on one side, and Qatar is on the other. Qatar never approved of the large-scale military intervention and urged negotiation with the Houthis. It never committed combat forces inside Yemen, sending only a token force to help guard the Saudi border. When Saudi King Salman and his three closest Gulf allies launched their boycott of Qatar in June, the tiny emirate’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim Al Thani, withdrew his troops from the Saudi border region entirely.
That border is sometimes the scene of fighting and raids, with three Saudi troops having been killed in a Houthi assault earlier this week. The Qatari force was no more than a token one; the nation only has 300,000 citizens and a tiny, poorly trained military. But Saudi Arabia and the UAE wanted much more from them.
The Saudi-led coalition has thrown Yemen’s 27 million people into one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. Some 3 million people have been forced from their homes. The majority of the country, 17 million people, are scraping by with barely enough food to sustain them, and 7 million of those are in serious danger of starving if just one more thing goes wrong for them. UNICEF estimates that 10 million children are being deprived of basic medical care, potable water, sanitation, and education.
About 10,000 people have already been killed by this war, and this spring a new horseman of the apocalypse showed up in the form of cholera. Over 200,000 people have been sickened with it, and 5,000 new cases are reported each week. Nearly 2,000 people have died of the disease, which is caused by drinking dirty water. The country’s health-provision infrastructure has collapsed, with 30,000 government health workers suffering substantial arrears in pay.
The humanitarian disaster has attracted some international intervention. Russia recently sent cargo planes to Sanaa with aid, and picked up Russian nationals wishing to flee the country (the capital’s international airport is now ordinarily closed). By sending supplies to the north, Russia implicitly critiqued the Saudis’ total-war strategy, which aims to harm civilians so severely that they will turn on their Houthi rulers. Turkey also just sent a medical aid ship, which will land at Aden in the south, after having had difficulty getting GCC permission to anchor there.
The United States is very much involved with the Saudi war effort, and the Pentagon seems to have bought Riyadh’s propaganda line that it is an effort to contain Iran. The United States also still pursues its drone war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has safehouses in some Yemeni towns. But American interest in the looming catastrophe in Yemen is tepid, and the Trump administration wants to cut the budget for humanitarian aid substantially. Yemen awaits its Picasso.