Yemeni American activists are launching a hunger strike to demand an end to Yemen’s 6-year civil war: ‘They’re no longer on the brink of it, they are in famine.’

Iman Saleh
Iman Saleh has been on a hunger strike to demand an end to the War in Yemen since March 29. Courtesy of Laura Albast/Yemeni Liberation Movement
  • Six Yemeni-American activists have waged a hunger strike to demand action on the crisis in Yemen.
  • The US has supported a Saudi-backed coalition as they fought against Houthi rebels since 2015.
  • The war has led to a large humanitarian crisis with millions experiencing malnutrition.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Iman Saleh is on her ninth day of a hunger strike to demand the end of a US-backed Saudi fuel blockade and a six-year war that has caused millions of people to suffer.

Saleh, 26, is one of six Yemeni-American activists, part of the grassroots Yemeni Liberation Movement, who have gone on a hunger strike in Washington, DC, and Michigan. She said the effort comes after years of protests and calling and sending letters to representatives about concerns over the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen, which she said have “fallen on deaf ears.”

“Things just weren’t happening fast enough. The rate of news that we were receiving in Yemen. The catastrophe, the suffering was coming in a lot faster than change was happening,” Saleh told Insider. “We were getting really frustrated and I mean at some point writing a letter just doesn’t feel enough anymore. So we knew that we had the capability and the health, thankfully to take more radical steps towards pushing for this.”

What’s happening in Yemen is both a civil and proxy war: In March 2015, Saudi Arabia launched an offensive against the rebel Houthi movement, which tried to overthrew the legitimate Yemeni government in 2014. Saudi Arabia has used the fact that the Houthis are backed by Iran as justification for their involvement.

The crisis has had a profound humanitarian toll, with at least 16 million people living in either “crisis” or “emergency” food security conditions, analysis by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a global authority on food security found.

A country on the brink

In a plan to address the crisis, David Gressly, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, said the situation in the country is now the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and is “hurtling towards the worst famine the world has seen in decades.”

However, Saleh says the country isn’t on the brink of famine, it’s already in the thick of it.

“They are in famine, they are dying from it. children are dying from it,” she said.

Yemen crisis
A nurse gets a malnourished child’s weight at a hospital where he receives treatment against malnutrition on April 03, 2021 in Sana’a, Yemen. Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

The IPC found around 47,000 Yemenis could be living with “catastrophic” levels of food insecurity or famine conditions by the end of June of this year and at least 16,500 were already in famine by the end of 2020.

Earlier this month, the World Food Programme said around 400,000 children could die in Yemen by the end of this year without urgent intervention. Roughly one child dies every 75 seconds.

The country is also dealing with decaying and limited healthcare infrastructure and a re-emergence of communicable diseases like cholera, diphtheria, and dengue fever.

Ending the blockade

Saleh and her group are especially demanding an end to a blockade that has prevented fuel from entering the country. CNN reported Saudi warships were preventing all oil tankers from docking at the Hodeidah port in the north, which is controlled by the Houthis. The blockage included 14 vessels docked off the Saudi port of Jazan in the Red Sea and had received clearance from the United Nations, but were unable to dock for months.

Late last month, one ship carrying fuel that was supposed to unload on November 5 was allowed to carry out its duty after the government said it would allow four to do so, but it’s not clear if it’s a temporary or permanent move.

The Saudi-backed government has enforced a sea and air blockade around the north of Yemen, where 80% of the population has lived since 2015. Aid has been able to enter the country through the ports but fuel hasn’t.

The fuel blockade has contributed to the lack of food and medicine for those in need, as trucks filled with necessary supplies like food and medicine remained stalled near the port, unable to move due to low fuel supplies, CNN reported.

Fuel is also needed to power hospitals and other basic infrastructure in the country; without it not much is able to properly operate. CNN added that with the blockade and shortages, Yemenis can be seen waiting in long lines to purchase whatever they can at inflated prices in an already shattered economy.

Yemen crisis
Yemeni medical staff hold banners during a demonstration outside the United Nations office in the capital Sanaa, on March 7, 2021, protesting fuel shortages leading to a decline in healthcare services. Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty Image

The toll of hunger

Saleh explained her own hunger strike has made her more emotional and helps her appreciate the suffering Yemenis are going through.

“It’s really hard,” Saleh said while tearing up on a call with Insider. “I can’t imagine seeing your loved ones go through this.”

The hunger strike has taken a toll on her physical and mental health. Saleh said her heart is constantly racing even if she’s laying down, her brain is always foggy and her joints ache.

“My mental health has really gone downhill. I’ve been thinking about suicide a lot. My mind kind of sits in a dark corner most of the time. I’m not tooting my own horn here or making myself out to be like some selfless, compassionate person but I never usually think about my own suffering,” she told Insider. “I always apply the pain of what it’s like to see someone else go through this. Most people here in America, much less people in DC, could never go six days without eating and here they are walking past us and ignoring our calls to push for a better change.”

Saleh said while she’s able to stop and find something to eat at any time, Yemenis can not. She added that the lack of food makes the body more susceptible to diseases it could normally fight off, which has her wondering about the health of those in Yemen as they deal with both cholera and the coronavirus pandemic, among other illnesses.

What the US can do to help

President Joe Biden has said he wants to end the war in Yemen and in February ended US support for offensive operations, but Saleh says it’s not enough and she’s not confident the administration would end defensive support out of good faith. She said this administration’s statements have been vague and the group said the war won’t be over until it’s “materially over.”

“We believe through radical change and through the support of the masses that we can actually put pressure on the Biden administration to eventually make that change,” Saleh said.

Saleh said while tragic stories from the Middle East are coming out every day, she wants people to know the suffering people are going through in Yemen and beyond is not normal.

“The world has just kind of been desensitized to these issues so when they happen, no matter to what extent, people just kind of feel hopeless or they just feel fatigued … and they just feel like this is so normal, but this is anything but normal,” Saleh said.

“It’s not normal for people to live like this.”

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If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.