THERE is reason for cautious optimism where ending the debilitating war in Yemen is concerned, as the UN’s top official for the country says “very good progress” is being made towards a ceasefire in the war-torn state. Earlier this month, the Saudi-led coalition had declared a unilateral ceasefire in its war against the Houthi rebel movement. The Houthis responded coolly to the truce, saying they would reciprocate if a crippling blockade of Yemen, enforced by the coalition, was lifted. However, while fighting between the two sides has continued, as per the UN’s assessment, efforts on “reaching consensus” continue and agreements could be reached “in the immediate future”. For Yemenis, who have lost tens of thousands of their countrymen in this vicious war, while millions remain hungry and sick, this is welcome news. This is especially so when the first case of Covid-19 has been reported in the battered country. This may, of course, only be the tip of the iceberg — considering the fact that Yemen’s health system has been shattered by over five years of conflict, the true number of coronavirus cases are likely to be far greater.
Both the Yemeni government and their Saudi backers, as well as the Houthi fighters and their Iranian allies, must realise the gravity of the situation and fast-track the peace process. While it may sound alarmist, Covid-19 may be a ticking time bomb in Yemen considering its undernourished, vulnerable population, with around 12m people needing food assistance. That is why to strengthen the chances of a permanent ceasefire, unrestricted food and medical aid must be allowed to reach all parts of the country so that the sick and the hungry can be cared for. The blockade should be lifted immediately and leading Muslim states need to approach both the Saudis and Iranians to help enforce the truce by convincing their respective Yemeni clients to put down their weapons. If petty geopolitical interests are pursued instead, an even larger disaster awaits the hapless people of Yemen.
Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2020